By Tanner Kent
The Free Press
MANKATO — One of the most culturally significant musical events in Mankato’s history takes place Sunday.
That’s when the Mankato Symphony Orchestra will perform the kickoff concert for its 2012-13 season, “To Be Certain of the Dawn.” More importantly, the concert serves as a musical contribution to the dialogue surrounding the 150th anniversary of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.
MSO Music Director Ken Freed said the music will explore the need to reconcile with the past in order to create a more hopeful future.
“This is one of the most profound things we’ve ever done,” said Ken Freed, music director for the Mankato Symphony Orchestra.
The concert will open with a traditional Native American prayer from Dave Larsen, a Mdewakanton Dakota elder and tribal historian. The performance then moves to Michael Daugherty’s recently commissioned flute concerto “Trail of Tears” before finishing with Minnesota composer Stephen Paulus’ multimedia oratorio “To Be Certain of the Dawn.”
Paulus was commissioned to write the piece by the Minnesota Orchestra and The Basilica of St. Mary to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps as well as the 40th anniversary of the publication of “Nostra Aetate,” the Vatican document that condemned blaming Jews for the death of Jesus Christ.
Even at its first performance in 2005 at the Basilica, “To Be Certain of the Dawn” was hailed as a momentous work. It was later described by the Star Tribune’s William Randall Beard as a “major composition that will take its place among the great oratorios.”
Arranged in three movements, Freed said the music is haunting and “gut-wrenchingly beautiful,” yet remains accessible. He was the assistant conductor for the Minnesota Orchestra when the piece premiered in 2005 and said it will be a challenge for him and his musicians to remain “in the music” and avoid being overcome with emotion.
“We are there to present this music,” he said. “The tears need to be in the audience.”
Daugherty’s “Trail of Tears” explores the forced relocation of Indians during the 19th century. He scored the solo performance for a Western flute rather than a Native American flute because the latter is too restricted in pitch, he told Symphony magazine earlier this year.
But as Freed notes, Daugherty “bends the flute into Native idioms” with tongue flutters and note bends that recall a Native American sound. MSO’s Jill Mahr will perform the solo.
As for “To Be Certain of the Dawn,” the music and multimedia slideshow are accompanied by several guest choirs and soloists, including: Minnesota State University Concert Choir, Musicorum, Mankato Children’s Chorus, Minnesota Valley Chorale, Angela Mortellaro (soprano), Abigail Fischer (mezzo soprano), Brad Benoit (tenor), and Kimm Julian (baritone).
Executive Director Sara Buechmann said the MSO aimed from the outset to engage as many groups and communities as possible in the performance.
“This is, by far, the biggest thing we’ve ever done,” she said.
Larsen, who is also the former director of American Indian Affairs at MSU, echoes the importance of the concert.
As a frequent guest speaker, educational lecturer and commentator, Larsen has spent much of the past few years engaged in discussions about the 150th anniversary of the conflict that led to 38 Dakota men being hanged in Mankato in 1862. He said he hopes the value of Sunday’s concert extends beyond music.
“Music is music,” Larsen said. “It makes us all similar. I hope this concert can help people become more aware that we all have more similarities than differences.”