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Missa. Millennia

For Dr. Curtis Hanson, composing started in earnest as a matter of mental health. Hanson, whose new "Missa Millennia" Mass and three other compositions will be featured in a John Duss performance Sunday, started composing a decade ago when, after...

For Dr. Curtis Hanson, composing started in earnest as a matter of mental health.
Hanson, whose new "Missa Millennia" Mass and three other compositions will be featured in a John Duss performance Sunday, started composing a decade ago when, after working several years as a music teacher in small-town Minnesota and eventually completing his doctorate at the University of Colorado-Boulder, he found himself an unemployed stay-at-home dad.
"I had to do something to stay reasonably sane, musically speaking," Hanson said during an interview in his offices at the John Duss Music Conservatory, where he now teaches voice, composes and does some administrative work.
Hanson, a native Proctorite, started teaching at the John Duss Music Conservatory in 1995 after moving back to Duluth a year earlier. He says the Mass, which has the full title of "Missa Millennia in Honor of St. Francis" in part to honor the Franciscan ties of the conservatory, was written as a gift to John Duss in gratitude for a job that seems to fit him perfectly.
"It's doing the things that I love to do, and I just happen to be making it my living. It's a pleasure," he said.
If Hanson likes his job, he positively gushes at the musical experience of having a concert of his work performed by the conservatory's SATB chorale society, women's chorale and orchestra -- conducted by Hanson, after Sr. Bernadone Rock, who usually conducts such events, offered him the baton.
"Sister said she wanted to sit back and listen," Hanson said.
"I was very appreciative of the opportunity," he added.
Noting that his composition process involves working heavily with computers in the editing process, he said the ability to hear the music through the computer was an advantage, but still sounded sterile compared to what was in his head.
Working with a roughly 40-person chorus has changed all that. "You wouldn't believe the gratification," he said. "... Hearing it with a choir gives me that sense of what my mind heard."
"I'm going to be on a big high Sunday," added Hanson, noting that it would likely rank among his very best musical experiences.
In writing the Mass, Hanson says he wanted to celebrate not just the current change in millennium but also reflect the tradition of Masses, which from a religious standpoint are two millennia old and half that as a musical form. So listeners can expect to hear traces of Baroque, Classical and Romantic elements, all in a "contemporary envelope," Hanson said.
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Although some of the musical ideas in the piece -- including the three notes of the tenor opening -- have been around for 25 years, most of the 50-minute Mass was written this spring, in about six weeks.
While vocal music is Hanson's expertise, he calls choral music his passion. He also writes music for his church choir at Our Savior's Lutheran on Grand Avenue, where his father also served as choir director.
When composing, Hanson said he starts with the text, often using sacred text and Scripture.
"If you don't have good text -- if you don't have good lyrics -- it's hard to make something musically valid," he said.
From there, he looks at expressing the text, through structures or melodies or harmonies, and he now uses a computer to edit to his heart's content.
The three other Hanson pieces being performed at the concert are "Laudate Dominum" and a setting of "Psalm 27," both shorter church anthems, and an arrangement of the hymn "Beautiful Savior." The latter, he said, was one of the first pieces he ever wrote and was composed because he had grown tired of the venerable F. Melius Christiansen arrangement that is a standby of better church choirs and Lutheran college choirs.
The performance will take place at Holy Rosary Cathedral, 2801 E. 4th St., at 3 p.m. Sunday. The event is sponsored in part by the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council, and admission is free, although a suggested $6 free-will offering is requested.

Kyle Eller is the Budgeteer news editor. Contact him at 723-1207 or at kyle.eller@duluth.com .

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