Teaching Bozemanites about pan...and by pan we mean, steelpan.
Percussionist Kristofer Olsen moved to Bozeman in August 2013 and is celebrating his fifth season with the orchestra! His wife Allison is an Assistant Professor in the English Department at Montana State University so it is with thanks to her, Kris says, they get to live in Bozeman. Originally from Havre, Kris moved away in 1994 when he graduated from high school. When Allison was interviewing for the job at MSU, it helped immensely that his brother Josh and his wife Bina Peters (viola) were living here in Bozeman, and so the prospect of being in town with family was extremely desirable.
Kris currently teaches in the Education Department and School of Music at MSU, works part time for All About Pianos in Belgrade, teaches piano lessons out of his home, and is the choir director at Christ the King Lutheran Church. Talk about being busy, but it doesn’t stop there. He has volunteered at Meadowlark Elementary through his church and for the Girl Scouts now that his daughter is involved. He has also coached his daughter’s Blitzz Micro-Recreational Soccer team for a few seasons.
When Kris moved to town, he wanted to get involved musically because he was trying to establish himself both as an educator and musician while still completing his dissertation at Ohio University. He contacted the Symphony as well as principal timpanist Jeff Vick and shortly after, had an audition with Maestro Savery and Jeff. Since then, he has have been performing regularly as a section percussionist and “having a blast” he says.
His musical interests started at a young age taking piano lessons in elementary school (around 3rd grade) and percussion in 6th grade. About his early music education Kris says: “I distinctly remember not wanting to be in choir because I didn’t want to be like my older sister (who was also in band so that didn’t work), but most of my friends joined choir in 6th grade and realized that I enjoyed music.” He eventually joined choir in 7th grade and sang in organized choir throughout high school and as an undergraduate at St. Olaf College. While at St. Olaf, Kris performed in both the St. Olaf Band and the St. Olaf Orchestra all four years.
Kris shares that he’s not exactly sure what inspired him to become a musician. “I had both positive and not-so-positive experiences in elementary music” he says. “I am told that I banged on pots, pans, anything as a baby and I wanted to play percussion because I thought it was cool. I remember getting hooked on mallet percussion as a 7th grader when the HS band director at the time put me in front of a xylophone and asked if I could read music to play it. Of course I could! It was like a piano that I struck with mallets! I would spend hours playing through method books in a practice room. I’ve always been interested in patterns and rhythm so my interest just kept progressing as I continued through school.”
About performing Kris says: “I enjoy the challenge of performing but I enjoy the collective creative process that is often a trademark of playing music. It’s one thing to learn a piece or even perform a piece by myself but it’s so much more fulfilling to communicate with other performers and our audience through our collective work. My favorite part of rehearsals or performances is catching the eye of a fellow musician in a nonverbal symbiosis.”
As mentioned earlier Kris is celebrating his fifth season with the orchestra. About his involvement with the organization, Kris shares: “I cannot imagine our life in Bozeman without the Bozeman Symphony. It has been a vital part of my musical life since moving here. I have performed in regional/community ensembles since graduation from St. Olaf and regularly reflected on how I missed the technical achievements of those groups. The Bozeman Symphony gives me an outlet not only to challenge myself as a performer but to marvel at the accomplishments of my fellow players. I love listening to the gorgeous playing of my colleagues and being moved by their talents!”
This will be the first time Kris has participated in a collage performance. During the last collage concerts, Kris was attending his PhD graduation from Ohio University. Although he has heard of such performances at other institutions but have yet to witness one live.
This time, Kris gets to experience the spotlight. Along with members of the Symphony’s percussion section, Kris will be performing a piece entitled “Number Two.” It is a piece for steelpans, electric bass and drum set written by his friend and classmate from West Virginia University (where he did his master’s), Dave Longfellow. Mark Brown and Kris will be playing double seconds, Micah Jastrom will be playing double tenors, Jeff Vick will be playing cellos, Courtney Bury will be playing bass and Stephen Versaevel will be playing drum set.
The piece was composed for a group of WVU grads called the Dave Longfellow Ensemble, which developed after Kris graduated from WVU. The players of this ensemble Kris considers friends from the percussion and jazz studios. They basically started playing original tunes for steelpan because there isn’t a lot out there.
Dave, as described by Kris, is a brilliant player and musical mind. He has always enjoyed his use of interesting time signatures and grooves as well as his improvisational ideas for the group when they were playing.
Number Two features a number of interlocking patterns between the steelpans and bass over the multiple groove foundations of the drum set. The last time Kris performed this piece (on these same pans!) was at his last concert as a band director in Redwood Falls, Minnesota, before he returned to graduate school.
The students Kris performed with had witnessed a performance of the Dave Longfellow Ensemble at a steelpan competition in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and were similarly enamored with the infectious groove of the song.
Much like the lore of the instrument Kris will be playing on March 3rd and 4th, double seconds (which were named because they were the second steelpan invented), Number Two was the 2nd piece for the DLE that Dave wrote.
Kris is truly invested in this piece. He shares: “I absolutely love the opening of the piece that grows from a single player to the entire ensemble in a crescendo of patterns and instruments. The distinctive timbre of the steelpan, an instrument constructed from discarded oil barrels by young people in Trinidad and Tobago in the 1940s, is most definitely highlighted through the harmonic and melodic ideas of Dave Longfellow. I hope to increase the awareness of the Bozeman community to this instrument and am grateful that the BSO and Maestro Savery are allowing us to showcase them as part of the collage concert.”
Several components contribute to the excitement of collage and in Kris’ words, he says: “my understanding of the concept is that the music is non-stop. It breaks up the routine (an admittedly inadequate term) of a normal concert and allows for a chamber experience within the context of a symphony performance. With one piece leading into the next, the audience’s attention is shifted around the stage and the many timbres of the orchestra are showcased to a different level. I look forward to experiencing it as a performer and as an “audience member” when I’m not performing!”
Expanding on these thoughts, Kris shares that by attending a collage performance, audience members will get to see all the many talents of their orchestra and symphonic choir. “They get to hear solos, duets, ensembles and the full orchestra and symphonic choir all in one performance! And, selfishly, we get to play steelpans so they should come to hear that! I just believe it is a tremendous showcase of the talent we have in the BSO and Symphonic Choir and am thrilled to be a part of it!” he says.
Passion for what he does as a musician and community dominate the information Kris has shared with us today. In summary, he says: “as you can see, I struggle at being brief, especially when I’m passionate about something. I love “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” both as a listener and as a performer and am pumped to start rehearsing it. The last time I performed it, I was in college, which was over 20 years ago! I love talking steelpan but it may not interest others as much as it does me. Every time we play Number Two, I envision my friends who developed the parts we are playing and it is almost like I am playing with them. I still am in touch with most of the original members of the Dave Longfellow Ensemble and will be performing with the guitar (cello) player (Jeff Vick’s part) this summer! Hopefully this performance will spark some more interest in the instruments and I can teach more Bozemanites about pan! Thanks!”