St. Olaf Musicians Conquer the Big Apple

Originally Published in the July 2008 Entertainment Guide

Prior to embarking on a tour of Norway, Denmark and Germany in 1966, the St. Olaf College Band, under the direction of Miles Johnson, played a farewell concert on campus which was reviewed by the Minneapolis Tribune.

“The most musical excitement of the morning was provided by a pretty little piccolo player who put down her instrument to solo as a soprano in a medley of tunes from Gershwin’s ‘Porgy and Bess,’” wrote the reviewer. “Her name – and I think you’ll be hearing it again and again – is Irene Gubrud…She is an exceptional young singer.”

Irene (also known as Renee) studied voice with Lenore Schmidt at St. Olaf and, after graduating in 1966, did gradu-ate work at the Juilliard School and Yale. When Irene made her debut at Carnegie Recital Hall on Nov. 17, 1970, the New York Times chimed in with praise: “There are not many singers, experienced or otherwise, who would risk their reputations on a program consisting of songs by Schoenberg, Webern, Ives, Hindemith, Debussy and Wolf, but that is what Irene Gubrud did at Carnegie Recital Hall Tuesday night, and she came out very much the winner,” wrote critic Allen Hughes. He added that it was clear that “this young soprano has the natural gift for communication that cannot be learned.”

Irene’s classmate and fellow band member Ron Sell also took a bite out of the Big Apple, playing French horn in and becoming personnel manager of the American Symphony Orchestra while also serving as musical contractor for many shows on Broadway and other venues. Meanwhile, another former St. Olaf Band and Orchestra member, Sharon Moe (St. Olaf Class of 1964), was making quite a name for herself as a French horn soloist and composer while also based in New York City. As Frank Sinatra sings about New York City, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere,” and these three St. Olaf graduates have indeed made it, in a very competitive musical environment.

Irene Gubrud
In 1980, Irene was a first prize winner of the Walter M. Naumburg International Voice Competition. Her captivating artistry has led to performances with major symphonies throughout the world (see box). Her recital tours include regular stops at Lincoln Center in New York City and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and she has appeared at various international festivals, including in Bergen, Norway, and the Casals Festivals in Mexico City and Puerto Rico. Irene teaches voice privately in New York City and has been a guest teacher in many prestigious venues, including Juilliard, Manhattan School of Music and around the country (including St. Olaf). She is married to respected choral conductor and tenor Steven Finch.

A Ford Foundation grant allowed Irene to commission George Crumb to compose a work called “Star Child” for her which she premièred with the New York Philharmonic in May of 1977. The New York Times reviewer said, “She has a most impressive voice – strong, secure, always on pitch. She cut through the orchestra at all times, shaping the phrases with perfect musicianship.” Time Magazine called it a work of immense power and daring, sung “splendidly” by Irene who was “supported by crutches, because of an old back injury.”

Despite this back injury (the result of a fall from a carnival ride in Irene’s youth), Irene was able to debut in La Bohème as Mimi with Opera St. Paul on Nov. 18, 1981. This event attracted much media attention and the audience of 1700 gave her a standing ovation. The Minneapolis Tribune said, “She has a glorious voice of considerable range, powerful in both the upper and lower register with almost flawless phrasing and enunciation.” Irene received the St. Olaf Distinguished Alumni Award, giving a recital and participating in a Parents Day con-cert at her alma mater in October of this same year.

Since 1979, Irene has spent summers as an artist/faculty member at the Aspen Musical Festival and School in Colorado, performing and teaching voice. She also teaches a course, “Meditation for Optimal Performance.” From this year’s Festival, she sent word that she has initiated there the Musicians’ Peace Project, “a program that advocates using the unifying power of music to promote peace, and the understanding that all races, religions and cultures are part of one great human family.”

Ron Sell
Ron Sell came to St. Olaf from Ft. Dodge, Iowa, in 1962, attracted by the college’s choral reputation. But the baritone who had been in Iowa’s All-State Choir auditioned for the band with a borrowed French horn and ended up in both the St. Olaf Band and Orchestra. “The only choir I sang in was the Viking Choir my freshman year,” Ron told me at the home he and his wife Peggy (St. Olaf Class of 1968) own in Northfield, during a recent visit.

“We’re looking forward to transitioning here over the next few years,” said Ron. Ron and Peggy have four children: Olin, Ingrid, Patrick (St. Olaf Class of 2000) and Molly (St. Olaf Class of 2007).

Currently Ron is personnel manager for the American Symphony Orchestra, which was founded in 1962 by Leopold Stokowski. Concerts are held at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Bard College and Symphony Space in New York City. Ron has played French horn in the American Symphony Orchestra since 1970, four years after arriving in New York after college graduation. He has a master of music degree from the Manhattan School of Music and a master of education degree from Columbia University.

Ron estimates that he has played French horn in more than 35 Broadway shows, dating back to a show called “The Happy Time” which starred Robert Goulet in 1968. He has been a musical contractor for many of the shows, as well, hiring the orchestra members for the productions (see below). He is particularly proud of the work he has done with Stephen Sondheim over the years, starting with “Sunday in the Park with George” (starring Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin) in 1984. In this show Ron’s playing was featured onstage.

Ron said one of the most “satisfying, gratifying experiences” of his life was when he was asked to be musical contractor for annual “Music for Life” concerts at Carnegie Hall from 1988-90, conducted by Leonard Bernstein and James Levine, with proceeds to fight the AIDS epidemic (Bernstein died the week before the last concert). Ron’s duties included making sure that all the New York orchestras were “represented properly” and “keeping everyone happy.” Guests artists such as Leontyne Price and Placido Domingo donated their services and it was “truly remarkable,” said Ron.

As for future projects, Ron said, “I am presently assembling orchestras for two weeks of the ballet ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (Prokofiev) in July. It is a new version of the score utilizing material censored during the Stalin era. After that is a two week run of an opera and ballet by Szymanowski. That takes me right into the Bard Music Festival in August: two weeks, four different programs of Prokofiev. All the orchestras have to be hired separately. Lots of work. The fun is playing all that great music.” In the fall he will be contracting musicians and preparing to play in a Broadway revival of “Pal Joey.”

Ron feels that a lot of the music business is “based on who you know and if you are in the right place at the right time” and, despite the “kind of romantic view some people have of a musician’s life, it can be pretty cut-throat.” Although St. Olaf did not prepare him for that, Ron said, “I had a tremendous love for playing” which “Mity [Johnson] instilled in us.” Not every performance can be wonderful but, said Ron, “Every now and then there is an experience you have that is really moving,” which comes from “the kind of spirit created at St. Olaf of really loving what you are doing.”

Sharon Moe
Sharon Moe started playing French horn during 5th grade in Rapid City, South Dakota, after becoming entranced with what she calls the “amazing, beautiful sound” of that instrument. Her family then moved to Janesville, Wisconsin, and when Sharon left there for St. Olaf in 1960, she immersed herself in the musical world of the college, becoming the principal horn for band and orchestra and singing in the Chapel Choir under Kenneth Jennings. In January 1962 she won first prize in the WAMSO Young Artists Competition and made her debut as soloist with the Minnesota Orchestra, played a television recital and was given a four-year scholarship to Manhattan School of Music in New York City. (She is currently on the faculty of the M.S.M. Precollege and at Long Island University’s C.W. Post.) At the time of the WAMSO award, Sharon’s St. Olaf Band director and French horn teacher Miles (Mity) Johnson (who was also a noted French horn player) said that the French horn is “the most difficult of the brass instruments,” yet Sharon’s playing was “innately musical, very eloquent, as natural as speaking.” Sharon remembers Johnson as “extraordinary – a great musician, teacher and mentor.”

Sharon has lived in New York since graduating from St. Olaf, but one of the milestone events in her musical career took place in Washington, D.C. Sharon was chosen by Leonard Bernstein in 1971 to be the solo French horn for the première of his work “Mass,” which was created for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Sharon was a member of the American Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski at this time and she had just composed “American Fanfare,” a work for brass and timpani. Stokowski loved the work and gave it a world première in two concerts in Carnegie Hall to thunderous applause. Well-known composer and arranger Morton Gould was in the audience for one of the performances. Impressed by the piece, Gould facilitated its publication with Chappel Music. The St. Olaf Band performed this work shortly after the 1971 première and again in February 2003. Another highlight of Sharon’s career was her critically acclaimed solo performance in the world première of Oliver Messiaen’s “From the Canyon to the Stars” in Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. The New York Times wrote: “Sharon Moe was the superb soloist.”

In October 1995 Sharon came to St. Olaf to hear her new composition, “Manitou Heights,” played by the St. Olaf Orchestra, a piece which was commissioned by the orchestra and dedicated to the memories of Donald Berglund and G. Winston Cassler, two St. Olaf music faculty members who had inspired her. Sharon has been commissioned to compose a work for the St. Olaf Band in honor of Miles Johnson.

Sharon admits that she has to juggle rehearsals, but she currently plays as principal horn for the Long Island Philharmonic, New York Chamber Soloists, Colonial Symphony, New Philharmonic of New Jersey, New York City Opera and the Bronx Arts Ensemble. She has performed in major halls and festivals all over the United States, Spain, France, and Argentina and has been featured in numerous TV specials and recordings (see below).

Sharon was introduced by Stokowski to her late husband Tony Miranda, who was the principal French horn player, on the stage of Carnegie Hall before her first rehearsal with the American Symphony. Daughter Antonia, a graduate of Baruch College, is an artist, musician, specialist in languages and is described by Sharon as a “shining light.”

In May of 1991, Sharon received a Distinguished Alumni Award from St. Olaf College and Irene and Sharon were soloists in an extraordinary event when Miles Johnson con-ducted 260 former St. Olaf band members and 86 current band members in a reunion concert in Skoglund. “St. Olaf was a great place to grow and make music,” Sharon told me, with “music of the highest standards,” worthy of performances in Carnegie Hall. “I made so many friends and learned so much from my parents and from St. Olaf about the importance of giving back and honoring and respecting what God has given us. Every person has a chance to make a difference in the world by what we believe and what we do.”

Sharon retains close ties to Northfield, as her brother Richard Moe and his wife Nancy live here, and Myrna Johnson is her daughter’s godmother. Sharon concluded, “I am grateful that I was able to be at St. Olaf with all the great faculty and students and to be a part of the lovely town and people of Northfield.”

Irene, Ron and Sharon left St. Olaf for the Big Apple but have not forgotten the core values of their artistry acquired during their days in Northfield.

Thanks to Irene, Ron and Sharon for their willing cooperation and to Jeff Sauve of the St. Olaf Archives and Myrna Johnson for assistance with this story. I was privileged to play with Ron and Irene in the St. Olaf Band, including the 1966 European tour.

Irene Gubrud

Among Irene Gubrud's credits as a recitalist and orchestral soloist are singing with the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra and Cleveland Orchestra, the symphonies of St. Louis, San Francisco, Minnesota, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Cincinnati, the National Symphony and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. In Europe Irene has sung with the Stuttgart and Bavarian Radio orchestras, the Philharmonic Orchestra of Holland and the Symphony of Bordeaux. She has had a recital tour of Norway and toured East Germany with the Baltimore Symphony, the first American orchestra to play during the time of the Berlin Wall. Irene has often performed Poulenc’s one-act opera “La Voix Humaine,” a work staged for her at the Central City Opera House of Colorado, which she later per-formed at the Ravel Festival in France.

Ron Sell

Among the highlights of Ron Sell's career are playing French horn in and contracting musicians for Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway productions of “Sunday in the Park with George,” “Into the Woods” (the 1987 original and 2002 revival), “Passion” and “The Assassins.” Other personal favorites: “Crazy for You,” “Kiss Me, Kate,” “Big” and “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway.” Ron also was a member of the orchestras of Radio City Music Hall, the New York City Opera, and the American Ballet Theater and has played on occasion with the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera. He is orchestra manager and first horn in the Manhattan Philharmonic and the American Theater Orchestra. For 15 years in September he has contracted and produced “Broadway on Broadway” outdoors in Times Square, a concert highlighting the Broadway season which attracts audiences of 20-30,000. Ron also regularly contracts musicians for special shows such as “Divas with Heart” last May at Radio City Music Hall (a sell-out of all 6300 seats), which starred Diana Ross, Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight. Ron has played on tours with Frank Sinatra, John Denver, Luciano Pavarotti and others. Another highlight was playing for the centennial rededication of the Statue of Liberty in 1986, which was televised live all over the world. Ron and Sharon Moe, who had played together in the American Symphony, shared this experience and other music projects over the years.

Sharon Moe Miranda

Sharon Moe Miranda (her composing name) has had her works premiered and performed by the Houston, Syracuse, Phoenix, Helsinki, Fairbanks and American symphonies, the New York Pops Orchestra, the Buffalo Philharmonic, Long Island Philharmonic, Juilliard Wind Ensemble, the Spoleto Music Festival of Italy, the Aspen Music Festival, Miami International Festival and the St. Olaf Orchestra, Band, Manitou Singers and St. Olaf Christmas Festival. Her orchestral composition “Windows” was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work in honor of those touched by breast cancer, “And I Will Wipe Away Your Tears,” was premiered in 1995 by the Long Island Masterworks Chorus and Orchestra and received a standing ovation. She has received numerous awards from ASCAP and was honored in a film festival at the Museum of Modern Art for her music score “Echoes.” Among the long list of artists she has performed with are Leonard Bernstein, James Levine, Luciano Pavarotti, Tony Bennett, Billy Joel, Bernadette Peters, Frank Sinatra, Philip Glass,Wynton Marsalis, Danny Kaye, Beverly Sills, Kathie Lee Gifford,Marvin Hamlisch and Clark Terry. At the time of this interview, Sharon was involved in playing and recording for the televised Broadway Tony awards show and preparing solos for the Vermont Mozart Festival this summer. She is also one of 11 musicians who play music for the Nickelodeon show “Wonder Pets,” the number-one children’s TV show in the world. Sharon is currently working on two CDs for solo horn and piano and horn and orchestra and was a soloist recently on a CD with the Marble Collegiate Choir in New York City.

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