Ken Maiuri’s Clubland: Florence Community Band readies for holiday concert



Last modified: Thursday, January 30, 2014

At a rehearsal of the Florence Community Band, director Priscilla M. Ross instructs members to take out a piece called “The Eighth Candle.” A rising wave of rustling paper fills the air. The ensemble, made up of musicians aged 15 to 90 (with varying degrees of experience), is rehearsing music for its popular annual holiday concert that will take place Sunday at 2 p.m. at Northampton High School.

The band’s program of seasonal, Hanukkah and Christmas pieces will include guests like the Whole Children Joyful Chorus (making its third appearance at the event) as well as Mayor David Narkewicz (who will narrate “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” in a night shirt and cap) and Northampton city councilor Bill Dwight. Admission is free with a donation of a non-perishable food item for the Northampton Survival Center. But at the time of this rehearsal, there are weeks to go before the big concert, and “The Eighth Candle,” a challenging eight-minute piece that involves five time signatures, now sits on the music stands, an Everest needing to be scaled.

“Think we can do it straight through?” Ross asks the room as she claps supportively. The group eases into it, and its first try rises and sways with a wonderful combination of emotional surges and squirrelly pitches. When the music dives into a pulsing 5/8 section with more of a belly flop, Ross makes a big windmill swirl with her arm to stop everyone. “We almost did it,” she announces like a still-focused coach.

The 30-or-so musicians work on the complex piece for a while, starting over at various points in the sheet music under Ross’ direction. During one run-through, she raises her voice over a foggy field of woodwinds: “Something’s funky here ... get the right notes, somebody!”

But then the musicians cohere, the piece picks up steam and everyone holds it together for the exciting ending. When it ends with a bang, Ross punctuates the air with a triumphant close of her fist. “Much better! Much better! Yes!”

Next they tackle “Cowboy Christmas,” an upbeat medley of yuletide chestnuts (“Jingle Bells,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” etc.) recast in Western motifs.

The tune puts a big spotlight on holiday percussion, like the “slap stick” — two pieces of long thin wood with handles which, when smacked together, sound like Santa cracking the reins.

But there are also plastic blocks to suggest the tick-tock clip-clop of hooves, plus sleigh bells, triangle, tambourine, cowbell and two large cymbals that get clapped together for an ear-shattering smash.

A trumpet player uses a mute to sound like a horse’s whinny, and suddenly the French horn section is playfully (and unexpectedly) bobbing stick ponies in the air — one woman even leaves her instrument behind to ride her pony around the room, galloping a full circle around a surprised Ross and the room full of musicians. The rehearsal hijinks are such a hit that they get worked into the show.

John Bobbin is the man in charge of the tableful of percussion, doing the work of a few players who couldn’t make it to tonight’s practice. He’s been a part of the Florence Community Band since 2005, but he also conducts the South Hadley Community Band — and plays in a Westfield-based swing band. “Pick any person in this group and they play in three amateur groups. Because we love to play,” he said. His main instrument is trumpet, but the FCB already had that covered; it did need percussion, though, so he found himself in the back row juggling various rhythmic instruments.

The impulsive stick pony rider was Kathryn Johnson, a pre-school teacher in Chicopee. She joined in 2011 and is proof of Bobbin’s statement — she also plays in South Hadley and Ludlow community bands. “I am a super band geek!” she says proudly.

Nancy Janoson, who conducts the Whole Children Joyful Chorus, also has a chair in the Florence Community Band, playing tenor sax, one of the instruments (along with flute) that she’s been playing professionally for years.

“I wanted to be part of the community and keep my sax chops up,” she explained. “You get to practice while you’re having fun instead of sitting in your room.”

This is the eighth year Ross and the FCB have done the holiday concert, one of the two “formal” performances the group does annually. “We get dressed up, everyone is in a festive mood,” she said.

Some of the concert’s selections will include Leroy Anderson’s always-crowd-pleasing “Sleigh Ride,” an Israeli folk tune called “Bashana Haba’ah,” an epic arrangement of Greensleeves and some pieces with the Whole Children Joyful Chorus, including “The Christmas Song” and a medley of favorites called “SNOW!” Ross expects there to be nearly 60 performers on the stage.
And how is “The Eight Candle” coming along? “It has shaped up to be quite moving,” Ross said just days ago. “I got tears and then chills last week at rehearsal.”

She thinks the ambitious piece may become a fixture in the FCB’s holiday set. “I love it so much. Plus we hand out glow sticks and prompt the audience, row by row, to light them up so that by the end of the piece, the whole auditorium is filled with the light sticks being swayed back and forth by the audience. Beautiful!”

Ken Maiuri can be reached at clublandcolumn@gmail.com

More information about the Florence Community Band — everyone is welcome, no auditions required — can be found at florencecommunityband.com.


 


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