OWATONNA — This year’s Harry Wenger Marching Band festival will have a new entry among the dozen marching bands: Lakes International Language Academy.
“Our festival filled up again within a couple of days” of opening in December, a testament “to the quality of the festival,” said Leslea Partridge, chairwoman of the festival’s board. “People want to be in it.”
Bands need to be “Johnny on the Spot” to gain entry, and Lakes International did that, Partridge said. Lakes International, based in Forest Lake, will compete in Class A Saturday, alongside such schools as Winona Cotter, Lake City, and Richfield.
The parade, which starts at 11 a.m., will proceed up Lincoln Avenue to Main Street, then on to Cedar Avenue, Partridge said. The first “play zone” for bands will be on Lincoln near Trinity Lutheran Church, and judges will be located in the intersection of Main Street and Elm.
Though Owatonna High School’s marching band is judged and scored, the hometown ensemble is ineligible to compete for prizes and awards due to acting as host, Partridge explained. Awards Saturday will include best percussion, best color guard, best horn line, best drum major, and best marching and maneuvering.
Other awards include grand champion and people’s choice, she said. In addition, there’s the “Owat-onia” award, given to the marching band with the best combined scores at this festival and the Lake Waconia Marching Band Festival the same day.
The winner receives a traveling trophy, she said. The award was created to incentivize groups to play both festivals, rather than select one over the other.
Saturday’s festival pays homage to the vision of Harry Wenger, and his magnificent musical legacy can still be seen today in Owatonna schools, she said. “We have an excellent music program,” and, in marching band, students learn “discipline,” as well as how to “formulate and achieve goals.”
John Connor will once again be the master of ceremonies Saturday, while sisters Edith and Jean Zamboni will be the honorary marshals, Partridge said. Edith and Jean were students of Wenger, so “we were delighted to ask them,” as they “represent all those who were (his) students.
Wenger began his career as a teacher, and he also served as band, orchestra, and choir director for Owatonna Public Schools from 1936-1946 before starting Wenger Corporation in his home basement. After getting the business off the ground, he returned to the district as a teacher while simultaneously running the burgeoning company.
Wenger was president of his eponymous company from 1953-1970 and chairman of the board until 1983. He was honored with the Distinguished Service Award from the Minnesota Music Educators Association, the Edwin Franko Goldman Award from the American School Band Director’s Association, and the Gold Key Distinguished Service Award from Owatonna’s chamber of commerce, and he served on board of the Vandercook College of Music, Owatonna Foundation, and Minnesota Orchestra.
Pete Guenther, director of bands, including the marching band, at OHS, continues to be dazzled by — and grateful for — the community support of this event.
Band members and directors comment annually “how well they are treated and hosted” in Owatonna, Guenther said. “The community has to put on this festival, or else it won’t exist.”
“It takes so many gears to get it to work,” and “it’s probably the premier marching band festival in southern Minnesota,” Guenther added. “It takes an entire year to plan for a day.”
“Music does enrich and enhance our lives,” said Partridge, who is also the food and beverage coordinator for the festival. “It’s always heartwarming to see the way this community steps up” for this festival.
“People are very warm and welcoming to these bands,” Partridge added. “This community is much better for having this festival.”
As tradition dictates, OHS will be the final band to march Saturday, and the crowd “wants to see their own” band, Guenther said. “The cheer is humongous.”
As the OHS marching band winds to a finish on the route, “I get a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes every year,” Guenther said. “If you ever wonder if you’re supported, you don’t have to go far to see that support.”
Spectators will be treated to “a freshness to the ensemble I’m excited to show our community,” Guenther said. “We have a new visual staff” this year, which means “new ideas.”
This year’s program for the OHS marching band is “Twist,” which takes Christmas pieces and “changes their meters and keys,” he said. Based on “Minor Alterations,” this set is “very original,” giving these songs “a treatment I don’t think anyone has ever heard.”
A sample of this is “Jingle Bells” spliced with “Mary Poppins” music, he said. Another is “Here We Come A-Wassailing” set to “a Hebrew dance.”