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John Lamb, Published September 24 2012

Another kind of homecoming: George Hanson returns looking to lead FMSO

If you go

What: Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra’s Masterworks Concert featuring guest conductor George Hanson and soloist, pianist Benjamin Moser

When: 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: Festival Concert Hall, North Dakota State University

Info: Tickets are $31, $35 and $63. (701) 478-3676. www.fmsymphony.org

FARGO – Since graduating from Concordia College in 1980, Moorhead native George Hanson has traveled the world conducting the Tucson Symphony, directing opera in Berlin, Vienna and Budapest, conducting the New York Philharmonic, and spending seven years as head of the Wuppertahl Symphony and Opera in Germany.

Now he wants to bring it all back home.

Hanson returns to Fargo-Moorhead this week, conducting the FM Symphony Orchestra on Saturday and Sunday. The appearances are part of his tryout for the musical director position left open when Bernard Rubenstein stepped down at the end of last season.

Hanson’s quest for the job is a mix of personal and professional significance. His father, J. Robert Hanson, was the organization’s third conductor, serving from 1974 to 1991 (The elder Hanson and his wife have since retired to Minneapolis.)

George Hanson plays down that legacy in seeking the position. He says it’s more about giving back to the community where he spent his formative years before experiencing the rest of the world.

“As I began to realize the tremendous wealth of culture that exists all around the world, I always thought wouldn’t it be wonderful to experience that and bring it home in some way,” Hanson said recently from his home in Tucson. “It occurred to me that this was part of my thinking in my long-term goals was to be able to take all of the wonderful experiences I’ve had in the world and bring them home in some meaningful fashion.”

He gives the example of when he served as the musical director in Wuppertahl, Germany, playing Beethoven’s music 40 miles from the composer’s birthplace.

“In my orchestra were students of students of students of students of Beethoven,” he says.

What he learned from musicians raised on Beethoven, he had to figure out how to translate to the Tucson Symphony. Similarly he had to figure out how to translate modern composers like Gershwin and Bernstein, to German musicians studied in music more than 200 years old.

It won’t be hard for him to relate to the musicians of the FMSO, where he still has friends. He last visited for his 30th college reunion, the 2010 homecoming where he performed a Mozart piano concerto.

Interestingly, one of the pieces the FMSO will be performing this weekend, “Piano Concerto No. 1” by Tchaikovsky, Hanson played while studying at Concordia in 1979, with his father conducting.

“I spent months of my life building up the chops to master that piece,” he says. “I’ve conducted it many times, but I’ve never played it again.”

Another piece he’s looking forward to leading is Shostakovich’s, “Symphony No. 5,” what he calls, “One of the most extraordinary works of art of the 20th century.”

He explains how the composer was desperate to return to good favor of Joseph Stalin after the Soviet leader vocally disapproved of a previous piece. Shostakovich feared for his safety but won over popular opinion with “Symphony No. 5.”

“The piece was so popular Stalin had no choice but to accept it,” Hanson says. “What has been interpreted as the triumph of socialism is in fact the triumph of the human spirit over its surroundings. Some of it is actually a musical tweak of the nose towards Stalin. Fortunately for Shostakovich, Stalin didn’t get the joke.”

Hanson has come a long way since his first conducting experience, leading the Moorhead High School production of “Lil’ Abner” in the mid-1970s.

“Instead of a baton, I used a drumstick and held it in my left hand,” Hanson recalls with a laugh. “My father came to the dress rehearsal and was so horrified about me holding a drumstick in my left hand. He decided not to straighten me out before the performances were done, but he certainly let me know after that is a good way to make orchestra players’ lives difficult, to wave all of the patterns backwards.”

The drumstick conducting may have offered a glimpse of things to come a few years later when he played in rock bands.

“I played almost every prom between Bismarck and Anoka (Minn.),” he says. “I paid for much of college playing dances.”

A self-proclaimed “old rock ’n’ roll guy,” his understanding of classical and rock music paid off big in the 1990s.

At the time, Hanson was the associate conductor of Atlanta Symphony and Athens, Ga., band R.E.M. was working with Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones on a string arrangement, “Everybody Hurts.” Hanson was called in, and the recording features Hanson conducting the strings.

“I had a great time working with the band and part of the thrill was working with John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin, one of the icons of all great rock music,” Hanson says.

It may have been something of a highlight, but Hanson hopes there are more thrills to come in Fargo-Moorhead.

“I’ve always viewed my hometown as the place and people that gave me the opportunity to have these extraordinary experiences I’ve had in my life,” he says. “If I wind up with the chance of bringing some of those experiences back, it will be a great and gratifying experience for me.”