Music maker: Halstenson composes for symphonies and can rock a little, too

Michael Halstenson posed at a piano at Anoka High School. He's the band director there while composing dozens of pieces per year and playing in various bands. (Photo by Bruce Strand)
Michael Halstenson posed at a piano at Anoka High School. He’s the band director there while composing dozens of pieces per year and playing in various bands. (Photo by Bruce Strand)


by Bruce Strand, Arts editor

Elk River resident Michael Halstenson writes a new symphony about as often as the rest of us write a letter or a grocery list.

“Oh, there’s been hundreds and hundreds. Forty to fifty a year,” said Halstenson, 56, whose compositions have been heard at Carnagie Hall in New York, the Lincoln Center in Washington, Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, the Ordway in St. Paul, and Tampere Hall in Finland, to name a few, usually by bands who request a composition from him. He was directing his own group in Finland.

The Anoka High School band plays about 20 of his pieces every year, too. He’s been the AHS band director since 1996 and a teacher in the district since 1985.

Halstenson started composing while growing up on the farm near tiny Niagara, N.D.

“I had an ‘in’ with the band,” he chuckles, “because my dad was the high school band director in addition to farming.”

Halstenson studied clarinet at UND in Grand Forks while in high school and was a member of the university band, too. He continued his education at Webster College in St. Louis and the University of Minnesota. His primary instrument now is piano.

So, what does he write about? What inspires him?

“I was inspired by the land, at the time, trying to describe the land, the vastness of it, through music,” he said.

A sampling of his more recent works:

“I wrote on in 2005 for the tsunami (in Southeast Asia) for a fundraiser. It was called ‘Through Many Dangers, Toils, and Snares,’ which, of course, is a line from ‘Amazing Grace.’  That was for both orchestra and chorus.”

He wrote a 12-minute percussion and orchestra ensemble with the captivating title “When I Look Up and See the Stars Dancing.”

One of his favorites, “Playing in the Snow,” just a “fun sound,” gets played a lot at his Christmas concerts.

For a concert at Isle of Mann, the island in the Irish Sea, he wrote a piece inspired by a local tale about a little bird who flies over the ocean and returns. “I used that folk song at the end and when we play it there they recognize it as one of their treasures.”

Halstenson remains a prolific musician himself.

For two decades he’s  played with the Lake Wobegon Brass Band, which he founded.  It’s a 32-piece high to low brass band with a “real sophisticated” British-based sound that’s “nasty and hard.” Garrison Keillor, an Anoka native, gave them permission to use the name, and had them perform in a couple of broadcasts at a July 4 outdoor program in Avon.

Halstenson is a co-founder of Northern Symphony, a full symphony orchestra in its 11th year consisting of many area music teachers.

He also plays keyboards in an eight-piece rhythm and horns band called Staph Infection, consisting of AHS faculty members. They wail out such 1980s fare as “I’m a Believer” and “Coming to America” and “Just the Way You Are” at a few area bars such as North Woods in Nowthen, but their main event is the school’s Symphonic Rock concert that raises about $25,000 each April for needy kids in school.

Halstenson, who has resided in an apartment near Guardian Angels for a decade, said he still returns to the home farm each year to help with harvest, as his parents are still there.

It’s not all music with Halstenson. Away from the keyboard, he loves hunting pheasants and fishing for walleyes, with North Dakota, Canada and Mille Lacs frequent destinations.