Harry Nordstrom, longtime Carleton College music professor, dies

23December 2021

Violinist Harry Nordstrom had just gotten his undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota when he played with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, which later became the Minnesota Orchestra.

Nordstrom went on to become a professor of music, teaching for 40 years at Carleton College. He died Nov. 13 at his home in Northfield, eight days shy of his 98th birthday.

Nordstrom was born in Minneapolis and started playing the violin at age 9. Neither his father, a pattern maker at a steel company, nor his mother, a homemaker, were musicians. But by high school, Nordstrom was on the path to becoming a professional.

After high school, he attended Chicago Musical College until his studies were interrupted by World War II.

When he was drafted into the Army, his aptitude tests showed he had a talent for languages. So he was sent to learn Russian at Cornell University with the aim of making him an interpreter. The war ended before he was sent overseas, but later in life he taught Russian briefly at Carleton College.

“He could give a very good Russian toast,” said his son, Rolf Nordstrom.

After being discharged from the Army, Nordstrom attended the University of Minnesota. That’s where Harry met Sally Lee, a cello student who had played with an all-women’s orchestra during World War II. They married and had five children.

Nordstrom played with the Minneapolis Symphony for two seasons under music directors Dimitri Mitropoulos and Antal Dorati. He also sometimes performed with the Carleton College orchestra. When a music faculty position at the college opened, Carleton orchestra director S. Eugene Bailey encouraged Nordstrom to apply.

After the audition, he landed the job as a music instructor at the college in 1950. He earned a master’s degree and a doctorate at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester in New York, and eventually became a full professor and music department chair at Carleton.

Nordstrom also continued to perform. With his wife and two other string musicians, he created the Collegium String Quartet, which made appearances on public television and gave performances at the Jackson Hole Fall Arts Festival. Sally Lee Nordstrom also taught cello at St. Olaf College.

“We grew up listening to their practices in our living room as we went to sleep,” said Nordstrom’s daughter, Pat Nordstrom.

“In addition to unconditional love, there was a lot of music,” Rolf Nordstrom said. “Growing up in a house filled with music, that was a privilege.”

None of the Nordstrom’s children became professional musicians. But Nordstrom did give lessons to a grandson, Rolf Haas, who became a professional violinist. Haas, who is also a hip-hop artist, has been a soloist with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. He plays on his grandfather’s Gagliano violin.

The violin previously was played by famed soloist Louis Krasner, who had been Nordstrom’s teacher and was concertmaster of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra.

“With my grandfather, the violin played string quartets, recitals with piano, and whether at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, or around the world, it helped teach innumerable young musicians the subtleties of musical language and expression,” Haas said in a YouTube video.

Nordstrom retired from Carleton in 1989, though he still continued to teach. He eventually had to give up playing when he lost the muscle control he needed.

“I said, ‘Dad, do you miss playing the violin?’ ” said his daughter, Amy Gunderson. “He said, ‘No. I just practice in my head.’ “

Nordstrom is survived by daughters Pat Nordstrom of Northfield, Amy Gunderson of Burnsville and Sarah Nordstrom of Eden Prairie; sons Eric Nordstrom of Stewartville, Minn., and Rolf Nordstrom of St. Paul; eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Services will be at Skinner Memorial Chapel on the Carleton College campus in Northfield on Jan. 30 at 2 p.m.

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