(WJET/WFXP/YourErie.com) — To understand the passion, just see a member describe the music:
“There are a lot of notes. Rapidly. Lots of crashes up and down – ‘ticka-ticka ticka-ticka ticka-ticka’, and lots of good licks. This is the challenge piece. While I’m in the clarinet section and I’m playing “da-da-dadda da-da-dadda da-da-dadda”, up and down and enjoying it. The group in all its nature kind of slowed down, thinking ‘It’s easy.’ But in the middle of the piece, in particular, it slows down until the woodwinds get half notes and full notes in this lovely flowing section. On top of that, there’s this horn fanfare going on… they’re right behind me all the time, and I turn around and say, ‘Wow, that was awesome.’
It’s Don Cameron, president of the Concert Band of Northwest Pennsylvania. He is not the only passionate member of the regional group. The director too, when asked, talks about the physical feeling of playing music.
“There are definitely key moments when things happen and you get this snap in your head and think, ‘Ah, that was wonderful’, and you’ll get goosebumps and a big sense of ‘rush’ from of that,” Armond Walter said. Walter is the relatively new director of the Concert Band of Northwest Pennsylvania. He’s got big shoes to fill – he’s taken on the role of replacing the band’s founder and first manager, John Fleming. Fleming was head of regional harmony for 40 years until June this year when he handed over to Walter.
Walter and Fleming have decades separating them. Fleming retired from the University of Edinboro in 2002 (now known as PennWest Edinboro) after a career as a librarian. Meanwhile, Walter hadn’t even graduated from the University of Edinboro until 2009 and only started his teaching career in 2010.
Fleming spent much of his life developing musical appreciation in Erie County. In 1982, he was a radio host at WQLN. In November 1982, he gathered people in his living room to discuss the possibility of creating a concert band. A team of musicians has been assembled and a conductor has been selected. Two weeks before the first sight-reading session, the conductor backed down and Fleming was chosen to step in.
“I said, OK, what do I do now?” They were all marches, and I said to myself, “I took up conducting when I was teaching. I can do it – I know these steps well enough to do it. And that’s how I became a conductor,” Fleming said.
The big debut was scheduled for June 23, 1983. The first song from this concert was “New Colonial March” by Robert Browne Hall.
The band now has over 600 gigs under their belt. After 40 years as band manager, Fleming retired. Walter intervened. The first song Walter led as the band’s manager (other than “The Star-Spangled Banner”) was Henry Fillmore’s “America Exultant”.
Fleming had created the group. He made the group grow. He led and led the group for 40 years. It’s not easy to put that back. Concert Band president Don Cameron said it was not a quick transition between directors, but rather the transition was carefully engineered and executed by Fleming.
“Around 2018, John (Fleming) very wisely cast Armond to be the assistant director, so we had that to ourselves as another build,” Cameron said. “Armond himself is his own asset with his degree in music which he earned at Edinboro University and Messiah University for Wind Conducting. We have all of that at Armond, plus last year he was selected as one of the top 40 music teachers under 40 in the United States.
Cameron described Walter as bringing a freshness to the orchestra. Walter said bringing in a new director anywhere is a transition, but he seemed self-aware of his approach to transitioning with the band.
“There is a balance that we have to find. My primary objective is to perpetuate the heritage of the ensemble which has been built up over 40 years. Will my vision be a little different from John’s? Absolutely, but as long as we continue to hold onto those core values that were instilled that John and I share, we’re going to see that continued growth,” Walter said. For example, Walter said he was planning a holiday gig for the band this year. Fleming said he’s avoided holiday concerts for the past 40 years for three reasons; winter weather in Erie County; concert orchestra arrangements can stray too far from the original melody, and that’s not what a holiday audience expects; and many other bands (instrumental and vocal) already have their own long-established holiday gigs. Walter explained that the orchestra members had specifically requested a holiday concert.
Overall, Fleming seems to trust the new director. Vacation or not, music comes first, and Fleming says Walter understands music.
“There are a lot of conductors who have absolutely no idea how to lead a march. He knows. He can do it. And he makes the steps sound great,” Fleming said. “I wouldn’t have asked him to do it if I didn’t have the confidence that was there…I know what Armond will do, and I trust him.”
Throughout the summer months, the Northwestern Pennsylvania Concert Band can be seen in parks and other outdoor venues. On August 10, the band will perform at 7 p.m. in Linesville at Little League Field. At 7 p.m. on August 17, the band will perform on the lawn of Cole Auditorium in PennWest Edinboro. The band will also play August 24 at the Crawford County Fair in Meadville. An afternoon or evening with an orchestra on a lawn on a sunny day feels great, but Fleming encourages audiences to be on the lookout for indoor performances. Updates are posted on their social media page.
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“Yes, we can do a good job on the outside. But if you really want to hear us, come to an indoor gig,” Fleming said.