Musician, composer, UND prof named Artist of the Year

Michael Wittgraf, chair of the UND Department of Music and the North Valley Arts Council's Artist of the Year, can play 16 instruments and teaches musical composition. But it would be a mistake to pigeonhole him as a Mr. Stuffy Music Professor.

Michael Wittgraf
Michael Wittgraf on stage in the Josephine Campbell Recital Hall at UND with his bassoon, one of 16 instruments he has played. Wittgraf, chair of the UND Music Department, has been named the North Valley Arts Council Artist of the Year. (Photo by John Stennes)

Michael Wittgraf, chair of the UND Department of Music and the North Valley Arts Council's Artist of the Year, can play 16 instruments and teaches musical composition. But it would be a mistake to pigeonhole him as a Mr. Stuffy Music Professor.

He may write art music -- which, to the untrained ear, occasionally sounds like a draining sink followed by a moose call -- but he's also part of the Downtown Horns, a popular jazz, blues and rock band.

He's an administrator at UND, but he also rides (and works on) his own motorcycle. At a recent recital of classical music where he played the bassoon, he told the audience, "I'm just hoping I don't get any spit on the floor," before he and clarinetist Michelle Maria Ingle launched into a piece by Beethoven.

And when you ask him, where would one hear art music and how is it used? -- He replies with a smile: "It's not used for anything. It's art."

Since 2006, the North Valley Arts Council has honored four people and/or businesses and organizations with its annual arts awards.


In addition to the Artist of the Year award (which comes with a $1,000 prize from The Grand Forks Herald), this year's recipients are Madelyn Camrud, Individual Supporter of the Arts; River City Jewelers, Michael Zhorela and Cory Schullo, Corporate Supporter of the Arts; and the Summer Performing Arts company, Outstanding Contribution to the Community.

The award winners will be honored on Tuesday at Empire Arts Center during the sixth annual NoVAC Arts Awards and Silent Auction. Cocktail hour and the silent auction will begin at 5:30 p.m. with the awards presentation at 6:30 p.m. Admission will be $10 at the door and the event is open to the public. Proceeds will go to support NoVAC programming.

Wittgraf, who joined the UND music department in 1998, specializes in composition, theory, technology and bassoon. His composition catalog contains more than 50 works for orchestra, band, choir, chamber ensembles, solo instruments, voice and electronics.

He has won many honors and his compositions have received special distinction in the U.S., Canada, France, Germany and Austria. Many artists, including the Chiara String Quartet, the Minnesota Orchestra, and the National Symphony Orchestra, have commissioned and/or performed his music. He has been composer-in-residence for the Greater Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra and has performed with artists such as the Neville Brothers, Molly Hatchet and Kenny G.

Wittgraf is active in the Grand Forks region as a performer and lecturer. He plays with the Greater Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra and is a past board member, plays organ at various churches and performs frequently with area groups and ensembles.

He was elected chair of the music department in 2009 and said he finds his administrative duties busy and time consuming. The art pieces he composes are generally short and are music that probably never will be on anyone's Top 40 chart.

"Over here, there's very narrow definition of what's popular (music)," Wittgraf says, moving his hands to one side of his office desk, "and I'm way over there," he says, moving his hands to the other side.

Still, he's had a good track record of having his music performed at national conferences in North America, Europe and Australia. He's had a couple of important composition distinctions, and -- since 1997, the year he earned his doctorate -- has been able to write almost all his pieces as commissions.


The son of music teachers, he played in polka bands as a teenager and toured with rock bands for four years. Originally from Redwood Falls, Minn., Wittgraf spent his junior high and high school years in Paynesville, Minn. He took piano lessons from his mother and saxophone lessons from his father, a public school band director. When he was about 14, Wittgraf said, he listened to Anton Bruckner's Fourth Symphony and Seventh Symphony every day for at least a year. During his undergraduate years at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., he grew to appreciate the Allman Brothers and Little Feat, he said.

Wittgraf has a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Carleton College, a master's degree in music theory and composition from the University of Minnesota, and a doctorate in music composition from Northwestern University. Today, the main instruments he plays are the bassoon, piano and organ. Asked what popular music he enjoys, he named Lady Gaga, Coldplay and Muse.

"They're all parts of the whole," he says about the different kinds of music in which he works and takes pleasure. "Everything I do in music mooshes together in my life."

Wittgraf is married to Pieper Bloomquist, and they have two daughters, Solveig Bloomquist and Inga Wittgraf. His wife is an artist and their daughters, too, are talented and interested in the arts. Wittgraf said he's seen the arts community grow and thrive during his time in Grand Forks. For examples he lists the founding of the Grand Forks Children's Choirs; the growth of community theater and the Summer Performing Arts program; the quality of the Greater Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra and of local youth symphony programs; the continued presence of the North Dakota Museum of Art; and the growth of the UND music department.

"For me, living in Grand Forks has given me the opportunity to be recognized nationally and internationally for my composting, but also because I have a knack for playing lots of instruments, I do a lot of performing here in Grand Forks," he said.

As 2011 Artist of the Year, Wittgraf is in good company. Others honored by NoVAC include Al Boucher, 2010; Kathy Coudle-King, 2009; Michael Blake, 2008; Job Christenson, 2007; and Adam Kemp, 2006.

"I teared up when I got the phone call" that informed him of the award, Wittgraff said. "It's a big deal. Look at that list of people who have been Artist of the Year. I'm embarrassed to be on the same list as them."

If you go


- What: The annual North Valley Arts Council Arts Awards and Silent Art Auction

- When and where: Tuesday, Empire Arts Center. Cocktail hour/auction, 5:30 p.m.; awards presentation, 6:30 p.m. The public is welcome.

- Artist of the Year award: Michael Wittgraf, chair of the UND Department of Music

- Individual Supporter of the Arts award: Madelyn Camrud

- Corporate Supporter of the Arts award: River City Jewelers, Michael Zhorela and Cory Schullo

- Outstanding Contribution to the Community award: Summer Performing Arts company

- Admission: $10 at the door. Hors d'oeurves by Dakota Harvest Bakers, wine; proceeds will benefit NoVAC programming

- Prizes: Door prizes will be awarded at the close of the event; raffle drawings for an iPad2, iPod Touch, and more


Reach Tobin at (701) 780-1134; (800) 477-6572, ext. 134; or send e-mail to .

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