(WJET/WFXP/YourErie.com) — To understand the passion, one needs only to witness a member describe the music:
“There’s a lot of notes. Quickly. Lots of accidentals up and down — ‘ticka-ticka ticka-ticka ticka-ticka,’ and lots of good tonguing. It’s the challenge piece. Whereas 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 band in all of its own nature have kind of slowed it down, thinking ‘This is easy.’ But in the middle of the piece, in particular, it slows down to where the woodwinds get half and whole notes in this beautiful flowing section. Overtop of that, there’s this brass fanfare going on… they’re right behind me all the time, and I turn around say ‘Wow, that was great.'”
That’s Don Cameron, president of the Concert Band of Northwest Pennsylvania. He’s not the only passionate member of the regional band. The director too, when asked, talks about the physical feeling of playing music.
“There are definitely key moments where things happen and you get this snap in your head and think, ‘Ah, that was wonderful,’ and you’ll get the goosebumps and a great ‘rush’ feeling from that,” Armond Walter said. Walter is the relatively-new director of the Concert Band of Northwest Pennsylvania. He has big shoes to fill — he has stepped into the role to replace the group’s founder and first director, John Fleming. Fleming had been at the helm of the regional concert band for 40 years until June this year when he passed the baton to Walter.
Walter and Fleming have decades separating them. Fleming retired from Edinboro University in 2002 (now known as PennWest Edinboro) after a career as a librarian. Meanwhile, Walter hadn’t even graduated from Edinboro University until 2009 and didn’t begin his teaching career until 2010.
Fleming has spent much of a lifetime building musical appreciation in Erie County. In 1982, he was a radio host at WQLN. In November of 1982, he gathered people together in his living room to discuss the potential of starting a concert band. A crew of musicians was gathered, and a conductor was selected. Two weeks before the first sight-reading session, the conductor backed out, and Fleming was selected to step in.
“I said, OK, what do I do now?’ They were all marches, and I thought, ‘I took conducting when I was teaching. I can do that — I know these marches enough to do it.’ And that’s how I became conductor,” Fleming said.
The big debut was scheduled for June 23, 1983. The first song of that concert was “New Colonial March” by Robert Browne Hall.
The band now has more than 600 concerts under its belt. After 40 years as the band director, Fleming stepped away. Walter has stepped in. The first song Walter conducted as band director (other than “The Star-Spangled Banner”) was “America Exultant” by Henry Fillmore.
Fleming had created the band. He had grown the band. He had directed and conducted the band for 40 years. It’s not easy to hand that over. Concert Band president Don Cameron said it wasn’t a quick transition between directors, but rather the transition was carefully crafted and executed by Fleming.
“In about 2018, John (Fleming) very wisely selected Armond to be the assistant director, so we had that going for us as another build,” Cameron said. “Armond himself is his own great asset with his degree in music that he picked up at Edinboro University, and Messiah University for wind conducting. We have all of that in Armond, and in addition, last year he was selected as one of the top 40 music educators under 40 in the United States.”
Cameron described Walter as bringing a freshness to the concert band. Walter said that bringing on a new director anywhere is a transition, but he seemed mindful of his approach to the transition with the band.
“There is a balance that we have to figure out. My primary goal is to continue the legacy of the ensemble that’s been built over 40 years. Is my vision going to be a little different than John’s was? Absolutely, but as long as we continue to keep those core values that were instilled that John and I do share, we’re going to see that continued growth,” Walter said. For example, Walter said he’s planning a holiday concert for the band this year. Fleming said he has avoided holiday concerts for the past 40 years for three reasons; winter weather in Erie County; concert band arrangements can stray too far away from the original melody, and that’s not what a holiday audience is expecting; and many other groups (instrumental and vocal) already have their own, long-established holiday concerts. Walter explained that members of the concert band had specifically requested a holiday concert.
Overall, Fleming seems to trust the new director. Holiday or otherwise, the music comes first, and Fleming says Walter understands the music.
“There are an awful lot of conductors out there who have absolutely no idea how to conduct a march. He knows. He can do it. And he makes the marches sound good,” Fleming said. “I wouldn’t have asked him to do it if I hadn’t had the confidence that was there… I know what Armond will do, and I trust him.”
Throughout the summer months, the Concert Band of Northwest Pennsylvania can be seen in parks and other outdoor venues. On Aug. 10, the band will be perform at 7 p.m. in Linesville at Little League Field. At 7 p.m. on Aug. 17, the band will perform on the front lawn of Cole Auditorium at PennWest Edinboro. The band also will play on Aug. 24 at the Crawford County Fair in Meadville. An afternoon or evening with a concert band on a lawn with good weather just feels right, but Fleming is encouraging audiences to be on the lookout for indoor performances. Updates are posted to their social media page.
For news delivered right to you, subscribe to JET 24/FOX 66/YourErie.com’s breaking, daily news & severe weather email lists
“Yes, we can do a nice job outside. But if you really want to hear us, come to an indoor concert,” Fleming said.