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Paul Niemisto: Never Retiring from Music

Picture of Susan Hvistendahl

Susan Hvistendahl

Susan Hvistendahl wrote 119 monthly Historic Happenings columns for The Entertainment Guide between 2007 and 2016. After she moved from New York in 2004, she assisted the Northfield Historical Society as a researcher, editor and collector of oral histories. She has a B.A. in Spanish from St. Olaf College and an M.A. in English from Iowa State University. In 2014 and 2015, The Entertainment Guide and Northfield Historical Society partnered to publish three volumes of Historic Happenings about Northfield, St. Olaf and Carleton. In 2019, By All Means Graphics published Milestones and Memories of the St. Olaf Band 1891-2018, which she co-authored with Jeffrey M. Sauve.
Paul Niemisto is founder of the Vintage Band Festival, being held in Northfield July 28-31.

When I heard that Paul Niemisto was retiring this year, I have to admit I could not believe it. Would this month’s 10th anniversary of the first Vintage Band Festival, which he started in Northfield in 2006, be his swan song?

Far from it. Niemisto (with the accent on the first syllable) is not the retiring type, even if he has just retired from teaching in St. Olaf College’s music department and leading the Norseman Band for 38 years. He will continue to lead the Cannon Valley Regional Orchestra and the Ameriikan Poijat Finnish band, both of which he also founded, as well as continuing with the Vintage Band Festival which takes place this month, July 28-31, featuring 30 bands giving 100 concerts. Niemisto told me that this festival has turned out to be “one of the greatest things in my life.” He said, “Although I have lots of things to be happy about,” the VBF “really filled a need.” He attributed his initiative to form CVRO, VBF and Ameriikan Poijat to a “pioneer gene,” liking to do things that haven’t been done before.

Niemisto grew up in the small town of Pelkie in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan as a third generation Finnish-American. His father, Reuben, was a farmer and a lumberman who had a sawmill during Niemisto’s high school years. Niemisto said, “I grew up milking cows and using a power saw, so I had a real blue-collar early existence.” His grandfather, Herman Niemisto, came from Finland in 1904 and worked in a copper mine in Calumet, Michigan, and then homesteaded the Pelkie farm in about 1915. Herman’s siblings also settled in the Upper Peninsula and Niemisto says he still has relatives all over Michigan. Niemisto was the oldest of three children, with a sister, Julie, and a brother, Patrick.

Although Niemisto said the Finnish influence was “impossible to ignore,” he was an “all-American boy” who was brought up speaking English. However, Niemisto later picked up the Finnish language, which would became useful in his musical career. Both of his parents appreciated music. His mother, Margaret, taught piano lessons and was a “big influence” on both Paul and Patrick who went on to careers in music, with Patrick now a retired choral director, living in Traverse City, Michigan.

Niemisto took up the trombone in fifth grade in Pelkie’s elementary school and then continued with lessons in the high school that he was bused to in Baraga, Michigan. He said he also “dabbled with tuba” and bought a mail-order Sears Roebuck guitar just because “everyone else was banging on guitars” in this rock era and “I had to find what it was about.” Although he never clicked with the guitar or any stringed instrument, his brother did and came to excel in playing guitar, bass and fiddle.

Niemisto came to St. Olaf College to teach music and conduct the Norseman Band in 1978. Photo from mid 1980s. Courtesy St. Olaf College Archives

After Niemisto graduated in 1966 in a high school class of 35, he went to the University of Michigan, which had been recommended to him by a high school music teacher who was an alum and “saw something in me maybe that I didn’t see in myself.” But Niemisto was not ready to commit to music. When he got to the large university, he said, “I wanted to open the door to see what else was out there…I was able to drag it out for about a year and a half and I just yelled ‘Uncle!’ I missed it too much.” He then applied himself to music.

Niemiesto played trombone in the university concert band, orchestra and the marching band (“I can still remember marching into the Ohio State stadium, thinking I was not going to get out of there alive!”). Niemisto met his future wife, Elinor Hathaway (who grew up in Detroit and was an accomplished harp player already in high school), when they played together in the University of Michigan Symphony Band, including a tour to Europe his senior year.

Judy Swanson designed this Norseman Band logo, c. 1998. Courtesy St. Olaf College Archives

After Niemisto received his bachelor’s degree in music, performance and pedagogy in 1971, he taught music at Horton High School in Wolfville, Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia in Canada, and when Elinor completed her bachelor’s degree, they started married life there. Niemisto earned a master’s degree in music in 1975 back at the University of Michigan, then returned to his job in Canada. Daughter Anna was born on May 23, 1978, and within two months they had moved to Northfield for his new position at St. Olaf College teaching low brass lessons, music pedagogy for future brass music educators and composers and as conductor of the Norseman Band. Niemisto said, “I was especially thrilled because we had a new baby, I was going to be back in the upper Midwest, a couple hours driving distance from all grandparents.” (After daughter Maija and son Tom were born in Northfield, Elinor began teaching harp at Carleton College and then at St. Olaf, as well. She also plays professionally around the Midwest.)

St. Olaf’s Norseman Band, conducted by Niemisto, celebrated its 50th anniversary this year. Some members of the 2003 band are pictured here. Courtesy St. Olaf College Archives

On April 30, 2016, Niemisto conducted his last Norseman Band concert at Skoglund Auditorium as the band celebrated its 50th anniversary. Former players were invited back for the festivities and about 30 joined the current band in the concert. Niemisto said over the years the band has varied in size, usually between 70 and 90 musicians, representing a broad spectrum of students. From his beginning as conductor for the 1978-79 school year, Niemisto selected an ambitious and varied repertoire, both modern and traditional. A first-year concert in Boe Chapel on April 10, 1979, featured the Symphony in B-Flat of Paul Hindemith, a major composer for concert bands, and Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to Candide. The Norseman Band performs regularly on campus and has toured annually in the Midwest and Canada.

Niemisto’s specialty is brass instruments, as shown in the c. 1986 photo. Courtesy St. Olaf College Archives

A highlight of his time conducting the Norseman Band came when Niemisto returned from a sabbatical in Finland in 1999 with “a whole lot of music that I wanted to share and so I made an application to present that at the Minnesota Music Educators Association.” The Norseman Band was selected from more than 55 applications for the MMEA Midwinter Conference in Minneapolis held Feb. 17-19, 2000. Niemisto put together “quite a fancy program with music of various vintage composers from Finland from 150 years ago to quite recent.” Niemisto’s plans inspired music publishers, composers and performers from Finland to also participate. Soloing with the Norseman Band was Kari Sundstrom, named Finland’s brass player of the year in 1991, who had joined the Minnesota Orchestra as a trombone player in 1996 from the Helsinki Philharmonic. Prominent Finnish musicians and composers Esko Heikkinen, Lassi Ikaheimo and Jukka Pekka Lehto also attended the conference, representing Finnish band music.

I found a letter in the St. Olaf Archives dated April 17, 2000, from a man in Glenwood, Minnesota, to St. Olaf President Mark Edwards, congratulating the Norseman Band on an outstanding concert there during which he had hosted three band members. He concluded, “Your school is continuing the fine upbringing they received from their parents.” Also in the archives is an offer from a man in April of 2012 to juggle with a trombone balanced on his chin during a Norseman concert. Niemisto’s reply was, “Sorry, no. Nice try.” But he added, “You can do whatever you want in the lobby.”

In 1991, Niemisto founded the Finnish brass septet, Ameriikan Poijat. On June 7, 1995, the members shown here were flown to St. Louis to play for the rollout of McDonnell Douglas fighter jets for Finland. (Left to right) Don Hakala, Eric Kiltinen, Russell Pesola, Paul Niemisto, Eric Peterson, Denise Pesola and Larry Zimmerman. Courtesy Paul Niemisto

Niemisto also has directed a trombone choir, a tuba and tuba-euphonium ensemble and has led St. Olaf’s participation in the worldwide Tuba Christmas event where tuba and euphonium players gather to play holiday music. First held in the new Buntrock Commons in 1999, it has been held in Boe Chapel the past two years.

In the 1980s, Niemisto did a lot of traveling to Finland, teaching, playing and studying and learning about Finnish music in the summers and also on sabbatical leave there from 1984 to 1985. He found a lack of information about Finnish brass septets in English and started collecting a small library of musical material himself. He finally decided, “I suppose I should listen to this stuff.” So in January of 1990, he gathered a group of friends who had an interest in Finnish music (including Russell Pesola, who had been band director at Northfield High School and was then director of the Concordia College Band in Moorhead) to sight-read what he had in order to see, as Niemisto told me, “whether there was any musical quality in there that would attract our attention and make us want to work on it.” Niemisto pioneered the music’s introduction into North America by forming Ameriikan Poijat (“Boys of America”).

Fulfilling a community need, Niemisto organized the Cannon Valley Regional Orchestra under the Northfield Arts Guild in 1979. Photo with Paul Niemisto (center) taken c. 1985 at a church in Lake Vermilion,  Minnesota. Courtesy Northfield Arts Guild

Early in 1991, the new ensemble took part in a Finnish festival in Lake Worth, Florida, and that summer toured Finnish communities in Minnesota, Michigan and South Dakota. They have produced four CDs, toured nationally and have played many times in what Niemisto called “festival-crazy” Finland where every little village has one.

Niemisto described the repertoire as being derived from 19th century Europe, with dance music such as polkas, schottisches, minuets and polonaises, transcriptions of opera overtures and traditional music by Finnish composers such as Sibelius written for septet. Instrumentation is an E flat soprano cornet, two B flat cornets, an E flat alto horn, a B flat tenor horn, a euphonium and a tuba, all in the conical brass family, which makes for a better blend of sound than if you were to try to balance a French horn, a trumpet and a tuba.

In 1992, Ameriikan Poijat took part in a “Roots in Finland” promotion of the Finnish Migration Institute to celebrate the country’s 75th anniversary of its independence from Sweden. This included playing the entry march at an ice arena stadium for Finnish President Mauno Koivisto which was televised internationally. The septet will return in 2017 for Finland’s centennial celebration, their fifth Finnish musical tour.

In 1995, Ameriikan Poijat, as the only one of its kind Finnish American brass band, was flown down in the morning of June 7 to St. Louis in an executive jet to provide music for a rollout ceremony at a McDonnell Douglas plant which had produced a series of fighter jets for Finland. Niemisto said it was a very “high end affair,” with Finland’s Secretary of Defense and other dignitaries. After a rehearsal, ceremony and a reception afterwards, they were flown back to Minnesota that same day.

Look for several performances of Niemisto’s Ameriikan Poijat
at the Vintage Band Festival on July 28. The website is

When Niemisto moved to Northfield in 1978, he was surprised to discover that there was no community orchestra in the area. Within a few months, after talking with musicians in town, Niemisto said “a bell went off in my head” and he talked with Myrna Johnson, Sue Shepherd and Marie Sathrum of the Northfield Arts Guild about having the Guild become the sponsoring organization of a new group, the Cannon Valley Regional Orchestra. Niemisto said the first CVRO concert was held during Defeat of Jesse James Days in September of 1979 for the Northfield Arts Guild Fair “on the bare ground behind the Northfield Middle School” (now Carleton’s Weitz Center for Creativity) near Central Park. The opening number was the Overture to Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute.

Niemisto has directed an ever-changing CVRO cast, while keeping in mind his template for an orchestra: two flutes, two clarinets, two oboes, two bassoons, two or three trumpets, four horns, three trombones, a tuba, violins, viola, cello, a bass and a drummer. Musicians of all ages, backgrounds and professions are drawn from more than 20 Southern Minnesota communities. The varied repertoire is performed, often with guest soloists, all over the Cannon Valley area, including Northfield, Cannon Falls, Faribault and Red Wing, at outdoor festivals, in historic churches and many other venues.

The 25th anniversary of the Cannon Valley Regional Orchestra was celebrated in 2005 with a commissioned work from Chris Forbes. It was a Northfield Sesquicentennial event. (Left to right) Chris Forbes, Paul Niemisto and CVRO bassoon soloist, William Child. Courtesy Northfield Arts Guild
Illustration by Maija Niemisto. Courtesy Northfield Arts Guild

On Sept. 8, 2001, celebrating the 125th anniversary of the thwarted bank raid of the James-Younger Gang on the First National Bank of Northfield on Sept. 7, 1876, the CVRO premiered Fidelitas, commissioned by the Northfield Planning Commission. The work, by Northfield’s distinguished composer Dan Kallman, was performed at Carleton’s Laird Stadium as a tribute to the memory of Joseph Lee Heywood, who gave his life defending the bank in the robbery.

The CVRO celebrated its 25th season during Northfield’s Sesquicentennial of 2005. In recognition of both passages of time, Kallman’s Fidelitas was again presented on April 17, 2005, along with a CVRO-commissioned work, Ballade for Bassoon and Orchestra, by another musician from Northfield, Christopher Forbes, NHS Class of 1979. Forbes, now in New York, is noted as a composer, jazz pianist and music educator. William Child was the bassoon soloist. Both works were reprised for the 35th season in 2015, with Northfield native Thea Groth featured as bassoon soloist.

Paul Niemisto (center) has conducted the Cannon Valley Regional Orchestra since its founding in 1979. Photo from concert at the Northfield Middle School Auditorium on April 30, 2016, by Rob Morrow. Courtesy Northfield Arts Guild

Niemisto pointed out that, along with annual productions of Handel’s Messiah, CVRO has also had many collaborations with different styles of music that are not normally associated with an orchestra. A 35th anniversary concert featured the world’s first pipa/violin concerto written and performed by Gao Hong on the pipa with CVRO concert mistress Gail Nelson on the violin. Nationally known folk musicians Jay Ungar and Molly Mason performed with CVRO in Cannon Falls in 2015. The CVRO partnered with the Minnesota Opera, Shattuck-St. Mary’s Vocal Performers and Red Wing Singers in 2013 at Red Wing’s Sheldon Theatre to present a classical music spectacular, “Opera’s Greatest Hits.”

Photo by Rob Morrow of bassoonist Wendy Placko (center) and members of the Cannon Valley Regional Orchestra from the concert of April 30, 2016. Courtesy Northfield Arts Guild

This fall, on Oct. 22 in Northfield and Oct. 23 in Cannon Falls, the CVRO will collaborate with the Laura MacKenzie Trio, presenting traditional Irish music ranging from dance tunes to ballads, sung in both Irish and English. The trio consists of Northfield native Laura MacKenzie on wooden flutes, whistles, pipes and voice, Dáithí Sproule on guitar and voice and Mary Vanorny on fiddle, all professional performers dedicated to traditional Irish and Scottish music.

For further information about CVRO, go to

This month, Niemisto’s considerable energies are focused on the Vintage Band Festival, which will mark 10 years since the first one in 2006. Niemisto told me that he was inspired to create this festival after years of attending conferences and festivals all over the world as a brass player, scholar and teacher. In 2003, as he was sitting in a conference hall in a village in Austria, listening to the river roar outside, he thought to himself, “You know, we could do something like this in Northfield.” His idea was reinforced when he was on the patio of the Contented Cow in Northfield and heard others wonder why the historic river town with a great musical legacy did not have some kind of summer music festival.

Niemisto said, “It started out as a conference in which I was going to have a little bit of incidental music just for fun…and by the time I got done with the planning of the summer, it had turned completely around.” Fifteen bands gave 40 free concerts at the first Vintage Band Festival held July 29-30, 2006, making it a music festival with, incidentally, a music conference. The Austria-based International Society for Promotion and Preservation of Wind Music (founded in 1974) held its first conference outside of Europe at the 2006 Vintage Band Festival. The Historic Brass Society of New York has been coming since the first festival and will be here this year. The festival, which was held also in 2010 and 2013 (with one-day festivals in 2014 and 2015 “to keep the public aware and engaged,” and aid in fund-raising), has turned into a wondrous mix of historians and experts, musicians and the community at large, all enjoying music together.

A master promoter, Niemisto shot this picture to publicize the Vintage Band Festival Spaghetti Dinner fundraiser at the Northfield Eagles Club on April 23. He ate the spaghetti afterwards. Photo by Paul Niemisto.

The bands (2016) including the Original Drachenfelser Musikanten of Germany, engage their audiences in Bridge Square, city parks, the Riverwalk (for the Civil War Battle of the Bands), churches, retirement centers, veterans clubs, bars and pubs in Northfield, with some performances in Cannon Falls, Faribault, Nerstrand, Owatonna and Red Wing.

In March of 2013, the Northfield Arts and Culture Commission declared, “Because of Paul Niemisto’s inspiring and sustained contributions to Northfield through music, teaching, arts entrepreneurship and cultural support, Northfield is a better place. Accordingly, Paul Niemisto is deemed a Northfield Living Treasure.” Among Niemisto’s other awards for his achievements is the Finnish Military Music Cross that he was given in 2000 for his years of work and research in Finnish bands. In 1999, Niemisto had a Fulbright grant to study and work in Finland and has secured a second one next spring for five months, “the capstone event for me with all the things I have been doing over there,” he said. Niemisto, who earned a doctorate at the University of Minnesota in 2005, will be playing and recording music, and doing further research and maybe teaching on military brass history.

Paul Niemisto looks forward to a rewarding future with his family. (Left to right) Niemisto’s son-in-law Nick Rogers, Niemisto’s daughter Maija and his grandddaughter Adalais, Paul Niemisto, Niemisto’s daughter-in-law Kate Johnson Niemisto, his son Tom Niemisto and grandson Fynn, Niemisto’s wife Elinor, his grandson Rowan and his eldest daughter Anna Niemisto-Tilley. Photo from 2014 courtesy Paul Niemisto

Niemisto told me that he is grateful and feels “very lucky” to live in a community where “both Elinor and I have been able to realize a lot of our dreams” and have been able to raise their children, Anna, Maija and Tom, in a “safe and stimulating environment.” Neither Paul nor Elinor Niemisto plan to “retire” from contributing their talents to the community that they love. Paul Niemisto concluded, “We’re feeling comfortable, our children are all happy as far as I can tell and they’re producing wonderful grandchildren and we’ve got a great future of just being in town and monitoring the growth of our families.”

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