And the Band

Plays On

After 125, years, Frostburg's Arion Band still keeps tempo

July 25, 2002|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

FROSTBURG - Ron Horner conducts the rehearsal of the Arion Band of Frostburg for its gala anniversary concert tomorrow night like a starting pitcher warming up with an all-star softball team.

He's got an athletic platform style, muscular and confident. He's wearing knee-length shorts, a loose polo shirt and sandals. He'll wear a white dinner jacket for the commemorative concert. Most of his predecessors wore military-style uniforms that made them look like leaders of the Palace Band in the Kingdom of Ruthenia. He's only the seventh director in the 125-year history of the Arion Band. It claims to be the oldest, continuously functioning community band in the United States. And it's playing just fine.

Jay Stevens, the band's historian, acknowledges there are community bands that were formed before Arion - the Repasz Band in Williamsport, Pa., dates to 1831, for example - but he insists the others have gaps in their history. Arion has been in existence continuously since 1877.

True community

The band members are all volunteers and amateurs, playing for the love of music and to have a little fun. They're housewives and high school girls, accountants and schoolteachers, farmers and music students at Frostburg State University. But they don't fit Garrison Keillor's definition of a community band as people who used to play an instrument.

"We like to think we're beyond that," Horner says.

They're certainly no village band playing oompah, oompah, oompah-pah.

Horner teaches percussion at Frostburg. He played about two years with the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra and he has performed regularly with the Pittsburgh Symphony. He's performed under such conductors as Leonard Bernstein, Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta and Sir Georg Solti.

He picked challenging works for the anniversary concert, including The Battle Pavanne by the 16th-century Flemish composer we all know and love, Tielman Susato; Marching Song by Gustav Holst, who is of course the composer of the very popular orchestral suite The Planets; Risen Angels, a memorial piece by Tom O'Connor, written as an elegy for a teacher and four little girls killed in a school shooting in Jonesboro, Ark.; and Frostburg Suite, commissioned for the band's 120th anniversary from Dr. Jon Bauman, a professor of composition at Frostburg State. He'll conduct it tomorrow.

And there will be the rousing marches: Americans We, by a prince of marches, Henry Fillmore, and The Liberty Bell March by the king, John Philip Sousa, will be the finale.

It marched, once

The Arion Band, after all, started out as a marching band. But during a period when the band members were aging fast, they quit marching. Frostburg is a hilly old mining town and while there are two directions, up and down, the band always seemed to be going up. It's a concert band now that plays Memorial Day and Fourth of July fetes and a schedule of about two dozen concerts at such places as nursing homes, shopping malls and parks. But it doesn't do parades.

"You want to know why the marching stopped?" asks Stevens, who has played clarinet with the band for 29 years. "I can remember when I was in high school most of the other members were older than me, and some of them were very old. And they would get invitations to the Chicken Festival in Moorefield, W.Va., and stuff like that. And the guys were too old to be hiking along.

"The last one we did was in Cresaptown, in 1986, I think. I remember it was like 100 degrees. Because they were older people then we'd get invites to all sorts of parades, and they would just say, `Here's another one. What do you think? I vote we don't attend. OK.' And that was it."

But there's been a transition, and there are lots of younger people now. Alison Welborne, assistant conductor, secretary-treasurer and first clarinet, is just 23.

"Now I'm one of the oldest ones," Stevens says. "I'm 46. When I was in high school there were guys in their 80s."

A long-timer

Mike Pfaff, the president of the band who plays baritone sax, says John Close has been in the band longer than anyone else now, 40 years.

"He came here as a kid," says Pfaff, who is 36 and has been in the band himself since 1983. He's an inspector for the Allegany County environmental protection department.

Close is the lone tuba onstage at Monday's rehearsal. Three will play tomorrow. In the old photos at the Frostburg Museum, there were often a half-dozen or more tubas in the band.

Ron Horner sometimes has to work to find enough musicians. He was still looking for a bassoon player Monday. Most of the works he was preparing require a bassoon. And more black bears then bassoon players inhabit these Appalachian foothills.

Close, who is 55, taught school 30 years. Now he's a traveling computer consultant for the Allegany County schools. He joined the band in 1962 when the local legend Gus Zeller was about midway through his 46 years as the longest serving director of the band.

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