General 1-4-2004

Composing, Not Decomposing, in Duluth

Sam Black brings news of music in Duluth, and speaks to Bradley Bombardier about his new composition, commissioned by the United Methodist Church and premiered this December.

Fortunately, the bleakness of Duluth is less than Christian McShane suggested in his insightful posting of December 04, 2003. While the Norshor Theater has had more than its fair share of ups and downs, the classical music scene in Duluth is exceeding all expectations. This year the American National Ballet launched itself out and away from the Minnesota Ballet, bringing twice as much dance to Duluth audiences. Fine chamber music is continually popping up in small spaces. Meanwhile, the Duluth-Superior Symphony Orchestra recently had its first “sell-out” in many seasons, and the 2300 available tickets have gotten scarce by noon of the past several concerts.

In October, the First United Methodist Church and the American Guild of Organists brought French organist-extraordinaire Marie-Louise Langlais to town for a premiere performance of a major composition by her late husband, Jean Langlais. Then on December 13, the same “Coppertop” church was responsible for commissioning and premiering a new organ composition by Bradley Bombardier. For a city with nearly a foot of snow on the ground, certain kinds of musical life are visibly prospering.

One living example of music in constant formation is Mr. Bombardier himself. A life-long resident of Duluth, Bradley Bombardier has spent more than half of his forty-three years creating new music for the public. His songs, anthems, chamber music, and symphonic pieces number over one hundred, and several proposals are in the air. Earlier in December he directed the premier performance of his “Fantasia for Three Organs,” Op. 124. Over lunch we talked about composing, music, and artistic life in Minnesota, as well as his newest creation.

Musically, Bombardier is a performer (bassoon and saxophone), teacher, and composer who seems to enjoy his relatively itinerant life-style. For many seasons he has been a steady member of the Duluth-Superior Symphony Orchestra, the Lake Superior Chamber Orchestra, and the Twin Ports Wind Ensemble. He is always ready to pick up his instrument and join chamber opportunities as they arise. At the same time, he is strongly committed to the coming generations of woodwind players. He teaches private lessons to students of all ages at several area high schools and at one or another college on demand. Additionally, he teaches orchestration and composition as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.

While that might sound like a full schedule, it made no mention of composing music. Bombardier frequently has two or more commissioned works in various stages of the compositional process. As expected, however, bringing one particular piece to completion always feels good. He accepted the commission for the “Fantasia” because it sounded intriguing and somewhat unique. “I rather enjoy creating music that presents a challenge to perform,” he commented. “Several years ago I wrote a “Concerto for Handbells” for the Lake Superior Chamber Orchestra and the Duluth handbell ensemble Strikepoint. How often is that going to be heard?”

In this tradition, his new “Fantasia” requires three separate organs in the same room: not exactly a commonplace condition. “Ideally,” he added, “the ‘Fantasia’ was meant to be performed with a small string ensemble. I made that optional, however.”

How does one go about creating a work for three independent organs? According to the composer, “I began by re-visiting the “Organ Symphony” by Camille Saint-Saens, one of my favorite organ pieces. I decided to imitate the architectural structure that Saint-Saens used to hold together the sections of his symphony. Then I began using my imagination to create melodies, and interplays between the three instruments. Echo effects were particularly inviting.”

At First Methodist, a pipe organ built by Austin Organs, Inc. has two identical, separate consoles/keyboards: one in the balcony, and one up front. While the main body of pipework is behind the balcony, an antiphonal section is located at the very front of the sanctuary. A portable organ, built by Jaeckel, Inc., of Duluth, and housed in the smaller chapel, was rolled into the sanctuary, completing the triangle of organs. Listeners were entertained by both the individual and combined sounds throughout the “Fantasia.”

The work itself was fascinating, although a bit complicated for a first-time hearing. Three organists at the church, Carol Donohue, Richard L. Peterson, and Oliver Houx, had spent nearly two months rehearsing together and synchronizing their tempos and entrances. In the absence of strings, Bombardier gently conducted the work, insuring a sense of cohesion for the varied rhythmic patterns. Flowing melody lines go back and forth between the organs, punctuated by clusters of chords coming from two different directions. This creates an assortment of tensions between the instruments, which only gets completely resolved at the conclusion.

Bombardier spread several ethereal melodies across the “Fantasia,” allowing for some individual character from each of the organ units. In one particularly effective section, the smaller Jaeckel organ intones a gentle melody while the larger Austin(s) throw dissonances toward it. The Jaeckel plays on, blissfully unaware.

As the trio moved into a fugal section, a stately tempo created the effect of three large bodies of sound hiking along intersecting paths. Sometimes the paths crossed each other, and musical tension resulted. Other times the paths were highly complimentary. Ultimately, this led to an increase of organ sound, long held notes in the pedal, and a re-statement of the hymn-like tune with full resources of all three instruments.

The frolicsome opening, and the powerful, sonorous conclusion clearly helped the audience appreciate the complicated meanderings of the inner sections. Bombardier suggested that “the addition of the string ensemble, while sharing similar musical material, would provide some relief for the organists, as well as providing the audience with a greater variety of sounds.” Plans are being made to raise funds for such a performance within the coming year.
The composer was pleased. “Next time,” he optimistically offered, “I would like to quicken some tempos up to my imagined speed, and use the strings to balance the whole effect.” At the same time, Bombardier realizes that his work is not likely to create a flurry of performances. “The basic demands are rather limiting,” he granted. While he considers various proposals for his next composing adventure, organists interested in performing this twenty minute “Fantasia” should contact him directly at

Meanwhile, it is winter in Duluth. Lights are everywhere, and far more brilliant when the snow covering is consistent. Nothing ever closes because of the weather. New musical ideas will continue to spring from the mind of Bradley Bombardier, which will find a performance and an audience in Duluth, regardless of their unique imaginings. And January will be as full as ever with a variety of classical music performances for all those who continue to support them so warmly.