University of Minnesota's director of bands relishes results of bold, new venture
Note: The original concert mentioned in this article has been rescheduled from March 5 to March 7. See concert information below.
"That's me in the middle, with my clarinet," Emily Threinen says in her office at the University of Minnesota School of Music, pointing to a picture taken in 1997, when she was an undergraduate at the university.
It shows members of the Wind Ensemble, beaming broadly, and flanked on one side by their conductor, Craig Kirchhoff, director of bands and Threinen's teacher.
Two decades later, and it is Threinen who is sitting in the director of band's chair at the U. Appointed two years ago as Kirchhoff's successor, Threinen cuts a bright and chirpy figure as she talks about the musical journey that has led from her schooldays in Elk River, Minn., back to her university alma mater.
"Director of bands here has always been a type of dream job for me," she says. "I thought it was perhaps unattainable."
But through spells of teaching at Duke University, Shenandoah Conservatory and Temple University, Threinen built an impressive résumé, and in August 2016 she became the first woman to occupy the director of bands position at the U.
One of her first decisions as director was to start a Bands Concerto Competition, providing an annual showcase for the many talented brass and woodwind players at the U.
"We had about sixteen students audition for it," she says. "And I see that number growing and growing, because this is just the first year of the competition."
Two winners were eventually selected, and they are both women — trumpeter Judy Gaunt and horn player Emily Green.
Does Threinen view their success — and indeed her own in winning the director of bands appointment — as symptomatic of a broader shift in classical music toward recognizing the achievements of gifted women in a traditionally male-dominated profession?
"To be honest, that didn't even occur to me until we were looking at our final shortlist of candidates," she says. "We didn't even think about gender."
More broadly, though, Threinen agrees that tectonic changes are afoot in classical music, in the areas of gender balance and equal access to performing opportunities.
"There are far more female brass players than there were," she says. "Until 1972, it was impossible for women to be in the Marching Band at the University of Minnesota. That's not really that long ago. Things are different now."
"In the Wind Ensemble, our most competitive group to enter, all the French horn players are women, and their teachers are both women. Our Marching Band director is now a woman. I think that in the industry, Minnesota is known as a pretty progressive place, and a place of equality."
Barriers to women trying to enter the classical music profession have, however, not disappeared completely. Trumpeter Gaunt has encountered several obstacles already.
"Back in high school," she recalls, "a teacher asked me what my dream job was. I said I wanted to be principal trumpet of the Chicago Symphony. And he said you'll never be that, because you're a woman. And I was pretty floored, but it made me kind of want it more.
"And I have learned that I am going to have to work just a little harder to prove myself as a woman player," Gaunt continues. "What I want to do is have an orchestral job, and at the moment almost all of those brass players are men. But I do think it's starting to change. When I was at Florida State [University], nearly all the top trumpet players were girls."
Gaunt, a native of South Florida and a graduate of FSU, moved to the Twin Cities last fall to begin a master's program in performance at the University of Minnesota. Despite the shock of the Midwestern winter weather, she is so far relishing the experience.
"It's been really great; the standard is very high," she says. "I especially love playing in the Wind Ensemble with Dr. Threinen. She's one of the greatest directors I've ever worked with, and it's a lot of fun."
Winning the concerto competition is an important step in furthering Gaunt's ambition to be a professional musician. The competition prize, an opportunity to perform James Stephenson's trumpet showpiece, The Storyteller, in a Wind Ensemble concert, is particularly significant.
"I've never performed a solo piece with a full wind ensemble before," Gaunt explains. "I've only ever played with a piano accompanying. Also my parents are flying in from Florida, and the concert is being live-streamed on the Internet. I'm not normally nervous, but all that might be a little nerve-wracking."
According to Threinen, who will conduct the Wind Ensemble for Gaunt's concerto debut, the young South Floridan has little to be nervous about.
"Judy is playing beautifully and brilliantly at present. She's the principal player in the Wind Ensemble's trumpet section, and we are very lucky to have her on the program. She's a very astute musician and a very easy person to work with."
And Threinen is hopeful that more soloists of Gaunt's caliber will be unearthed at future University of Minnesota Bands Concerto Competitions.
"Every fall we're going to keep the competition open," she says "and I'd love to see more and more students apply and audition."
March 7: Judy Gaunt plays The Storyteller, by James Stephenson, with the University of Minnesota Wind Ensemble at 2 p.m. Wednesday at the U's Ted Mann Concert Hall. Admission is free. (Note: This concert was rescheduled from March 5.) More info