A Friendship Observed

“Come Before Winter: A Concert Celebrating Poetry, Music, and Friendship”

reviewed by Richard Swanson

Call it what you will—gala concert, retirement party, world premiere—in the end it was a celebration of an extraordinary half-century-long friendship between Bruce Carlson, Art Mampel, and Tom Tredway. The event, in Augustana College’s Wallenberg Hall on March 25, 2003, coincided with the closing days of Tom Tredway’s brilliant 28-year term as President of Augustana College. Just down the path from Wallenberg Hall, 18-inch high, freshly-chiseled letters identify the new Augustana Library as the “Thomas Tredway Library”—another fitting memorial to a great college president.

The centerpiece of the evening under review, and of the concert, was Art Mampel’s poem “Before Winter” written long ago on the Hawaiian island of Kauai where Art was recovering after a serious tumble he had taken down a flight of stairs in Minnesota. Dazzled by the beauty of the island, and still dizzy, Art wrote the poem to his friends, Bruce and Tom, to encourage them to come to the island and reassure him that he had not died and gone to heaven. Quoting Saint Paul’s request to Timothy to “do your best to come before winter,” the poem proclaimed:

Wait with me awhile
When the air is cold
And the shadows are longer.

Wait with me through the harsh night,
When the soul is a dark figure
And the mood is lonely.
Come at an inconvenient hour,
Just before you can,
When the calendar will not permit,
When your suddenness
Will sway the balance of things.

But do not come when it suits you;
Not when summer moves the beaches
Not when the season is mellow—
For then we shall likely trifle.
Convenience is seldom the right visit,
But we are made real by sacrifice.

The poem drew Tom and Bruce to Kauai, there to comfort Art in his combined despair and delight, a visit to be repeated over the years since and in many settings, always obliquely and perhaps, ironically, addressing the subject of despair and its hidden delights.

Then would come the day a few years ago when Bruce would introduce “Before Winter” to the gifted composer, Libby Larsen, who gave the poem a musical voice and the title, “Come Before Winter.” The work premiered in the Twin Cities, and then lay somewhat dormant until a combination of events—the emerging synergy of Art’s sleeplessness (in Seattle), bone marrow cancer discovered in Bruce, and Tom’s pending retirement—led Bruce back to Libby Larsen with a proposal for a full-blown concert celebrating the friendship of these men. She accepted and created a musical tapestry for full choir, chamber orchestra, voice and piano, combining “Come Before Winter” with lines from such hymns as “Blest Be the Tie that Binds,” “Children of the Heavenly Father,” “Love Consecrates the Humblest Act,” and “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” The Augustana Choir and Chamber Orchestra were readily at hand, and Bruce, a musical impresario, engaged the splendid Swedish baritone, Håkan Hagegård, and the equally splendid pianist, Margo Garrett. The concert—celebrating poetry, music and friendship—was then scheduled for Wallenberg Hall.

The program began and ended with art songs for voice and piano performed by Hagegård and Garrett. The world premier of Libby Larsen’s composition, “Come Before Winter,” was the centerpiece of the concert. Following the recital, the artists received round after round of applause, as did Libby Larsen’s piece, which brought both composer and poet to the platform for a standing ovation. The music alone thrilled the audience, and for those close to the celebrated friendship, well, there were additional layers of significance. For example, Hagegård’s first encore, “Abschied,” was about a humorous fall down the stairs. And echoes of Tom’s farewell and Bruce’s illness (“It’s the devil who has put this bacillus in me”) could be found in the beautifully performed songs of Brahms and Argento.

Art says the secret of this friendship lies in the geographical distances separating the three, and the long intervals between their many “Conferences on Despair,” the humorous label for the trio’s various meetings and joint vacations. “We don’t have to go through the petty and non-so-petty irritations of daily contact,” says the poet. Bruce, however, claims that he would have enjoyed more frequent, even if petty, contacts. This reviewer, who has looked at this friendship at close range over many years can only say that it is a friendship fully deserving celebration.

Once again, the trio of friends is back in their places. The poet can be seen strolling the shores of Lake Washington, heading toward Lyle’s Red Onion Bar and Grill, thinking of words coming together in new ways while savoring words already ordered. Moments of divinely inspired dizziness still come. The president, in the hands of physical therapists following a Christmas Day encounter he had with a truck while cycling in Santa Fe, can be seen riding an exercise bicycle in his dining room, looking out the window, dreaming of his final getaway from the job. And the resourceful concert impresario? Managing his days well, with jovial courage and a light heart, knowing he has our gratitude for this magnificent concert as well as our prayers for his full recovery.

Richard Swanson is Chaplain Emeritus of Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

See all articles by Richard Swanson