Can 85 people make a loud noise for 49 years and remain inaudible to most of Mecklenburg County? The proof is Charlotte Concert Band. Unless someone in your family knows one of the musicians personally – or a local band director – you may never have heard of them, let alone heard them.
Yet the CCB’s 50th-anniversary season kicks off this week, with an invitational appearance Sunday at the N.C. Music Educators Association Conference in Winston-Salem and a public concert next Saturday in their Queens University home.
The latter has been titled “Transcendent Journey,” after a soaring overture by Rossano Galante. That name could apply to the wind and brass ensemble’s voyage out of obscurity.
It began with a tiny notice in The Charlotte Observer or Charlotte News in 1966. (Nobody seems to be sure which.)
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Jesse Barbour, the only player left from the first year, says founders Jack Howren and Jim Hall “wanted to give adult musicians somewhere to play. We were all hobbyists when we began; I’d played trumpet since the seventh grade in Morganton, and they were creating an opportunity for people like me.
“I had to put the horn away after 1980, when I was traveling for Duke Power. When I came back in 2007, the band had gone up quite a few rungs. We had a former principal trumpet with the Baltimore Symphony, and a lot of the players were band directors. Now it’s similar to a good college concert band.”
CCB director Drew Carter, a band director at C.C. Carter Middle School in Cabarrus County, took the reins in 2012 and made a crucial change: He balanced older players with high schoolers, because “I remembered how hungry I was for a challenge in my hometown (Winston-Salem). I needed a civic group to play in.”
He had 50 applicants for the band last year and could choose replacements for people who moved away or realized they were losing their lip.
“Musicians make that decision themselves,” says trumpeter Pat Williams, who started as a cornetist in her Lenoir middle school and has played continuously with CCB since 1967. “Over the years, directors haven’t brought it up. When you feel you need to, you can move down in your section.
“And when you’re not playing any more, Drew needs extra hands to sort music, help with advertising or promotions, take donations. The band is still your band. We still want your presence.”
In case you’re unfamiliar with concert band repertoire, it’s limited to ... nearly anything ever composed.
The “Transcendent” concert includes an arrangement of a baroque toccata by Frescobaldi, John Williams’ “Catch Me If You Can” movie theme, “An Original Suite” by British composer Gordon Jacob, Bagley’s “National Emblem March” – played in the band’s first year, when it did a lot of marches – and “The Hornet’s Nest” by William Harbinson. The Appalachian State University professor will conduct that world premiere Sunday in Winston.
“I was raised in Mooresville, and I never heard of a Charlotte Concert Band,” says Harbinson, who tailored the piece to its strengths. “When you write for a band, there are levels of skill (set by music educators) from one to six, which is the highest. Drew asked me to write for levels four and five.
“Writing for 85 people let me (produce) a rich sound, exciting and celebratory. I got the idea from Gen. Cornwallis’ comments about the area to do a Revolutionary War theme with a lot of drums. I used a field drum, like a tom-tom sound, to link it to that period and a piccolo solo to recall the fife. But I tried to write something interesting for everyone onstage.”
So how did the band get this adept?
It formed at Myers Park High School and moved to CPCC’s music department in the late ’60s. Veterans say it left in the ’90s, after the state passed a law that players couldn’t enroll in the same college course year after year.
Entering a new era
It transformed after moving in 1999 to Queens, where it plays at Dana Auditorium. Don Morris, who now teaches middle school band at Scholars Academy in Charlotte, became its 12th director and stayed until 2012.
When he took over, the band was half the current size. He used a website to post the band’s recordings and ensure musicians searching for “community band” could find the ensemble. He also instituted auditions. In 2009, the CCB made its first appearance at the music educators’ conference in Winston.
“My goal was to merge the high and low ends of the music,” he says. “We did children’s concerts, a pops concert, holiday stuff. The band needs to be a respite from the workday; I had to find music that’s challenging to play but not lose people who were there for enjoyment.
“We could play anything from ‘Harry Potter’ themes to Holst. For my last concert, I transcribed the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony.”
Carter keeps variety alive today. He hopes to work more with guest artists, as the Piedmont Wind Symphony did in his hometown, and he uses themed concerts to stretch players: He worked a polytonal Charles Ives piece into a military concert alongside Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” and a brass quintet from Fort Jackson.
“I try to pick something a little bit beyond them,” he says. “It’s a healthy balance among music I like, music the audience will like and music the band wants to play. Everybody gets something to enjoy.”
Charlotte Concert Band
When: “Transcendent Journey” will be performed Saturday. “A Night at the Movies” follows Feb. 13, and “Homage” ends the season April 16. All concerts begin at 7 p.m.
Where: Dana Auditorium, E.H. Little Fine Arts Building, Queens University, 1900 Selwyn Ave.
Tickets: Free, though donations will be accepted.