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Robert Hanson
1946 -   Class of 2004  Performing Arts
Robert Hanson was born on August 18, 1946, in the tiny southwestern Minnesota town of Hills, an ethnically homogeneous farming enclave he described as “not unlike … 19th century Norway.” He was a musical child, which his parents, Roy and Jean, discovered very early as he hummed and sang around the house. He began piano lessons at the age of four and soon was composing his own little songs which his mother had to listen to carefully and write down for him. In the fourth grade he began clarinet studies in the school band. “Some of my uncles on my mother’s side were musicians and I think that made our family sensitive to the idea that I might become one too,” he said. He was the oldest child; his sisters Mary and Lorna were also musical and the three formed a trio to sing at church and Sunday school as well as retirement homes and family gatherings.

Where on earth does one so young find that inspiration? In church, according to Bob, specifically the Lutheran church in Hills. “All those Bach chorales,” he said simply, “they just kind of settle inside you.” But not just church – he also remembers eating up the sight of Leonard Bernstein, conducting his Young People’s Concerts on the television show “Omnibus.” “And my band directors, too,” he said. “We had two wonderful band directors, Mr. Olson and Earl Colgan. It was really unique and unusual for a school of that size to have such talented musicians, and they were huge influences on me.”
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Bob received a public education at the Hills Consolidated School where, along with his twenty-two classmates, he did everything from football to debate and drama. His family was concerned about that football commitment, worrying that he might injure a hand but Bob remembers the advantages of trying a little of everything, unlike bigger schools in later times where the pressure to specialize in a field begins building early. From the age of fourteen he played organ in church and also played in the Sioux Falls (South Dakota) Municipal Band, “which was practically a full-time job,” he observed. “We played forty-five to fifty concerts a year.”

After high school graduation Bob enrolled at a Lutheran school, Augustana College in Sioux Falls, but, as he put it, “chapeled out” because of playing jazz piano in clubs until the wee hours of the morning. Mandatory chapel at 9 every morning just didn’t work out. He switched to the University of Minnesota. Chapel wasn’t an issue but a pretty coed certainly was. He met Linda Nelson, an art student, and they married in 1968. She eventually became a school administrator and the retired superintendent of the Highland Park-Deerfield High School District. They have three daughters, Jessica, Alicia and Britt, and three grandchildren

The Viet Nam War was raging and Bob knew it was audition or be drafted, so he did what other Hall of Famers like Jan Bach, Bob Olah and Grover Schiltz did before him – he auditioned for the military. He won a place playing clarinet in the Fifth Army Band and spent the next two years stationed at Fort Sheridan. “It was a wonderful ensemble, really,” Bob recalled. “Many, many of the players went on to positions in major orchestras either as players or managers or artistic directors. Of course, we hated it, but we saw a lot. State Street parades, weekly broadcasts for WGN-Radio, President Eisenhower’s funeral.” The last event places him squarely on the same page as his fellow 2004 inductee Jan Bach, who played for John F. Kennedy’s funeral.

After his discharge, he decided to get the college degree that had twice eluded him and enrolled at the Chicago Conservatory of Music. While finishing his degree there, he spent three years teaching music to grades K-8 in Ingleside, Illinois. “They were desperate for a music teacher so they didn’t care that I didn’t have my degree in hand yet,” Bob said. “I taught general music, band, chorus and put on musicals. It was a wonderful, fun time.” And of course it was a foreshadowing of things to come.

Getting that first degree seemed to open the academic floodgates for Bob, and shortly he was enrolled at Northwestern University, where he received a master’s in 1973 and a doctorate in 1983 in music composition. He even won the Faricy Award for excellence in music there.

He seemed to be destined for a life in academia. He was “in the process of being hired” for a teaching position at a major Midwestern university in 1974 when a friend called him up and said the Elgin Symphony Orchestra was advertising for an assistant conductor. “You have to remember,” he cautioned, “that at that time the Elgin Symphony Orchestra appeared to be just a small community orchestra playing three concerts a year. My professors were going out of their minds when they found out I applied. They responded, ‘Here you have all this training, and we got you this great job teaching, and you shouldn’t be doing this.’ But I guess I just felt that I would rather be making music than teaching music theory.”

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So at the age of twenty-eight Bob Hanson signed on with Elgin Community College as a full-time faculty member whose teaching duties would be assistant conducting the Elgin Symphony. In just a couple of years, 1976 to be exact, he founded the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra, an indication of his lifelong appetite for sharing the joys of music. In 1978 he brought to the college the Elgin Choral Union, which he also conducted. His boss and mentor was the late Margaret Hillis, the legendary Chicago conductor. She took the young conductor under her wing. Bob had no background in chorus, so Hillis had him sit in on her choral rehearsals and auditions with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. And she taught him something that he said “you wouldn’t believe how many of us conductors need to learn about. We call it ‘conductor’s disease’. That is the tendency to think that it’s all about you, the conductor. Margaret Hillis taught me that in the end it’s the music that matters, that the important guy is the guy who wrote the music. Not the conductor. We were extremely close and I had the most immense respect for her.”

Things were slowly growing with the Elgin Symphony. Every year the school added one paid position to the roster of unpaid musicians, usually a first chair. By 1981 the orchestra was sporting a brand-new board of directors. In 1983 Bob was named Co-Music Director with Margaret Hillis and in 1985 he became the Music Director. When the percentage of paid
professionals had reached about two-thirds, and the board decided upon full professionalization.

It was a busy era for Bob in other fields as well, since he served as Music Director for Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Elgin from 1978-85 and at the First Congregational Church in Elgin from 1985-90. He also directed the Traverse Symphony Orchestra in Traverse City, Michigan, from 1990-96, a professional group made up of faculty from Interlachen.

Achieving the status of Music Director of a professional orchestra was just the beginning for Bob. Over the next two decades he worked diligently to raise the standards of musicianship and to expand and elevate the programming. His success at that is unquestioned, and twice (1987 and 1997) under his baton the orchestra has been named Orchestra of the Year by the one hundred-member Illinois Council of Orchestras, an association of professional, community, college and youth orchestras. In addition the Council has named him Conductor of the Year (2001). Even more significantly, the Council recently awarded him its most prestigious honor, the Cultural Leadership Award which it has given only twice in its history.

In 2004, the orchestra had a $2.3 million budget and a roster of sixty-nine musicians, and played sixty-five concerts a year both at the Hemmens Auditorium in Elgin and the Prairie Center in Schaumburg. John von Rhein, music critic of the Chicago Tribune, in naming Bob the 2003 Chicagoan of the Year, said that “The orchestra now tackles the biggest, most challenging works in the repertory and plays them as well as almost anyone….” The orchestra also fielded a variety of educational programs, youth ensembles and even scholarship opportunities.

Von Rhein also observed that “Hanson…is one of the rare exceptions to the stereotypical regional maestro, a conductor far more interested in building his orchestra than building his career.” Without a doubt he has dedicated himself to the Elgin Symphony Orchestra for thirty years and without a doubt he has earned the respect of his peers and the admiration of classical music lovers in the suburbs. But there is more than that in Bob Hanson’s heart these days.

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It began five years ago when he decided he wanted to teach a music appreciation class at Elgin Community College. There is something a bit off-kilter about that. Surely the maestro of the premier suburban orchestra in the Chicago area would have more challenging things to do? To the contrary. Bob decided he wanted to know where the general public was in regard to classical music. So he stood before a class of average people with, for the most part, no exposure to classical music, and started teaching. And how did it go? “It was the greatest experience of my life,” he said quietly.

“It is completely amazing,” he said, “the message that music can carry. These people LOVED classical music once they could hear it. I know some lives were changed in that classroom. It was very much an ‘aha’ experience for them. It is absolutely amazing what happens to people when they learn about music. To teach people [who otherwise would not know] about music is the perfect job.”

The experience convinced Bob that music education is vital to every education, he share. “Our society has not felt that music education is important. I think we’ve damaged ourselves, actually, by trying to ‘sell’ music as helpful in developing math and science skills. Music is not secondary to math or science or anything. The ancient Greeks knew that. They said music must be known and appreciated on its own merits.”

Feeling that way has impacted his hopes for the future. Certainly, he felt that the Elgin Symphony was now capable of recording. 2008 saw the release of the ESO’s first CD on the NAXOS Label under the direction of Maestro Hanson, featuring works by Aaron Copland. Certainly, he feels that the symphony board should set goals and raise funds for greater achievements. Certainly he will bend every effort to the further artistic development of this organization. But the two things now shimmering most brightly on his horizon are more music education, and bringing music to the underserved. His tour in April of 2004 with the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra, visiting small towns where no one had ever heard a symphony orchestra, has convinced him of the need to do these things. “We need to go out,” he emphasized, “and bring these people our music. Not to the big cities of Illinois, but to the small towns and villages. This is what we need to do.”

Bob sounds, talking like that, like another Hall of Fame inductee, Maud Powell of Aurora. Maud, although an international superstar violinist in the early 1900s, nevertheless tirelessly visited the hinterlands of the United States for much of her career.

That is what Robert Hanson is feeling in these heady days of success and professional recognition. He is inhabiting the minds and ears and hearts of the uninitiated, feeling their new joy and wonder at classical music. And he is on fire to bring that feeling to the wide world. As a man on the podium of a remarkable symphony orchestra, he turns his eyes once again to the hamlets and villages of America like the one where, where as a boy, he sat in church on Sunday mornings and felt those Bach chorales “just settle inside.”
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 Thirty-year affiliation with the Elgin Symphony Orchestra