Who We Are

About Us

Who We Are…

We are the people of Mesabi Symphony Orchestra. We are your friends, your neighbors, your kids’ teachers, people you worship with, people you see every day. We are united by our love of music.

We are not professional musicians, although many of us are music teachers. We count among our members an attorney, a surgeon, a chaplain, a flight instructor, two data miners, a barista, a farmer, a retail store manager, a dog agility photographer, a geologist, a biologist, a nonprofit executive, a state legislator, a librarian, a graphic artist, several college students, two piano teachers, a choir director, a ski instructor, a rock climber, a WWII veteran who played in General MacArthur’s band, an orchestra teacher, and eight active or retired band directors.

Every Monday evening, we come together to rehearse so we can bring great classical music to Iron Range communities.

Our Mission

The mission of Mesabi Symphony Orchestra is to keep classical music alive and thriving on the Iron Range. The musicians of MSO are committed to artistic excellence, community, and lifelong learning.

Join Us!

Are you a trained musician living in Northern Minnesota who misses playing with an excellent ensemble?

Orchestra Openings

Benjamin Nilles, Artistic Director and Conductor

Benjamin Nilles

Benjamin Nilles

Benjamin Nilles is the quintessential 21st Century American conductor: A champion of new music who has brought to life new cinematic soundtracks, orchestral masterworks, and classical opera scores.

Raised in North Dakota and educated in music schools of the Upper Midwest and Great Plains, at age 28 he was appointed as conductor of the Oklahoma City University Symphony Orchestra, becoming one of the youngest conductors and artistic directors to lead a major university ensemble. He had previously held Assistant Conductor and Associate Conductor posts with the same orchestra.

From the podium of the award-winning Oklahoma City University Symphony Orchestra, Nilles displayed a virtuosic versatility: conducting multimedia spectacles for full orchestra; leading the first live-streaming concerts of symphonic masterworks from the Petree Recital Hall stage; conducting the Oklahoma Opera & Music Theater Company’s production of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, winner of the National Opera Association’s Opera Production Competition; and recording the 80-minute soundtrack of the historic 1920 movie Daughter of Dawn, selected in 2013 for the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

During his tenure with the Oklahoma City University Symphony Orchestra, the orchestra reached new heights of ability and became an important fixture in the community and region. The orchestra, routinely asked to be the centerpiece of important historical galas and events, garnered high praise with each performance under Nilles. As a leader and faculty member at Oklahoma City University, he was dedicated to education and sharing his passion of music, cultivating the highest level of musicianship from the orchestra and students in the classroom. In addition to galas and events, Nilles led the Symphony Orchestra on many trips to schools in the region and community, expanding the reach of the orchestra.

Nilles has been a mainstay in the recording studio setting. He has led studio orchestras for commercial recordings, including the title track for singer Bryan White’s album Dustbowl Dreams, and full orchestras for soundtracks and premieres. He has also led orchestras for live-concert releases on CD and DVD.

His most recent major event was a major collaboration concert between the Mesabi Symphony Orchestra & University of Wisconsin Superior choruses & orchestra of all-Bernstein music as part of the Leonard Bernstein centennial celebrations. Other major events include Nilles serving as conductor for the workshopping, gala premiere, and recording of the 40-minute, five-movement Windows to the West, in commemoration of the golden anniversary of the National Western Heritage Museum and Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. The work’s composer, Edward Knight, praised Nilles’ nuance, artistry and collaborative skills, calling him “a sensitive, charismatic conductor with an exceptional mind, a keen ear, and effortless technical abilities.”

Nilles earned his Bachelor of Music from Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, and his Master of Music from Oklahoma City University. He has studied conducting with Bruce Houglum, Mark Parker and Mark Belcik, and has worked with conductors Diane Wittry, Dennis Keene, Sergiu Comissiona and Bernard Rubenstein. Nilles is starting his third season as Artistic Director & Conductor of the Mesabi Symphony Orchestra in Virginia, Minnesota. Recently, he also served as interim conductor for the University of Minnesota Duluth Symphony Orchestra for the 2017-2018 season.

Our History

Mesabi Community Orchestra was formed in 1978 by a small group of musicians who were interested in making music together and doing it well. The group performed with the Virginia High School orchestra in the spring of 1978, then gave its first performance as Mesabi Community Orchestra on December 4, 1978 at Mesabi Community College. For the first time since the Range Symphony disbanded 30 years previously, the community could count a community orchestra among its assets.

The first director of Mesabi Community Orchestra was Jeanne Santa Doty, who was in the process of revitalizing the string program in the Virginia Public Schools. Over the years, MCO has also been directed by Christine Moroni, Dr. Benjamin Smith, Jeralyn Spampinato, William Lavato, Sheila Wilcox, Josh Aerie, Dr. Sergey Bogza, and Benjamin Nilles. The orchestra has performed across the Iron Range, including in Virginia, Aurora, Babbitt, Chisholm, Ely, Eveleth, Gilbert, and Hibbing.

Throughout its first 30 years, Mesabi Community Orchestra was supported by Mesabi Community College. The college paid the orchestra’s director, and provided rehearsal, performance, and office space and clerical support. The college also sponsored the Mesabi Community Band and East Range Choral Society (now Range of Voices). MCO became incorporated in 1984 and received its 501(c)(3) tax exemption in 2001. In 2007, Mesabi Range College withdrew its financial support. When the college expanded its engineering program, it was no longer able to provide rehearsal space.

The loss of the college’s support freed the orchestra to choose its own path. MCO began applying for grants, participating in Give to the Max Day, soliciting contributions by businesses and individuals, and carrying out other fundraising activities. MCO acquired new rehearsal space in the Eveleth-Gilbert High School band room. It began performing in the Iron Range’s historic and acoustically excellent auditoriums – Goodman Auditorium in Virginia, Hibbing High School Auditorium, Chisholm High School Auditorium, and Washington Auditorium in Ely. The orchestra began recruiting from a larger geographic area, and auditioning and hiring principals and assistant principals to lead its string sections. The orchestra’s budget grew substantially.

In 2012, the orchestra began performing as Mesabi Symphony Orchestra. The members of the orchestra adopted this name change to better reflect the level of artistry they have committed to achieving.

In 2013, MSO’s artistic director and conductor, Josh Aerie, moved out of state and the orchestra undertook a national search to find a replacement. Dr. Sergey Bogza became MSO’s eighth conductor in July, 2014. Two years later, Dr. Bogza left Minnesota to take a position with Milliken University in Decatur, Illinois. Once again, MSO conducted a national search resulting in Benjamin Nilles becoming the artistic director and conductor of MSO in July, 2016.

In 2014 MSO introduced a new performing group, Mesabi Chamber Ensemble, a low pressure learning experience for less experienced string players and those who are returning to playing after a hiatus. Mesabi Chamber Ensemble is directed by Sheila Wilcox, an experienced string instructor and the orchestra teacher in the Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert School Systems.

The 2017-2018 season was MSO’s 40th anniversary season on the Iron Range. MSO presented seven concerts in Virginia, Hibbing, Ely, and Superior Wisconsin. Its April, 2018, concerts featured a collaboration with the University of Wisconsin – Superior choirs and orchestra. MSO now employs an executive director, Rena Hartman Routhage, in addition to its artistic director and conductor, Benjamin Nilles. MSO’s budget is over $85,000 annually.

Board of Directors

Lynn Evenson, president
Karen McManus, vice president
Ben Johnson, treasurer
Jan Carey, recording secretary
Benjamin Nilles, artistic director & conductor
Sheila Wilcox, concertmaster
Erik Honkanen
Angela Byram
Aaron Kelson
Charles Zeugner

Rena Hartman Rothauge, Executive Director