“Stars and Stripes,” “American Overture” and selections from “West Side Story” filled the air as fireworks lit the sky over the Scarsdale Pool Complex Tuesday night. A week earlier the Pink Panther theme, classical tunes and a Les Mis medley drifted through the open windows of buildings surrounding Chase Park in the village as the Westchester Band kicked off its 50th season of performing free concerts for the Scarsdale community.
Started by the late Scarsdale High School band director Dr. Joseph Albright in 1969, the community band began as a small ensemble consisting mostly of local music teachers and their high school students. In the years since, 35 core professional players have been added to the group which has ballooned to 80 players, according to music director Alan Hollander, many of whom are still local music teachers and students.
“The level of the band has changed over the years with the addition of the professionals, and we have a very solid following every Thursday in the park,” said Hollander. “Some people in the band have been playing in it for 25 to 30 years, there’s a real dedication on the part of the musicians. It’s not unusual for music teachers [in the band] to have their students sitting next to them or, in the case of some people, having the children of students playing in the band also.”
Hollander, who first played the oboe with the band more than 30 years ago, took over directorship of the band 19 years ago after Dr. Albright retired. Like many in the ensemble, he spent many years teaching music — as a professor of music at Lehman College and as director of the instrumental ensembles at Edgemont Jr./Sr. High School. He has conducted several ensembles in the New York metropolitan area as well.
“There’s a passion for making music. That’s what the musicians and music teachers have,” said Hollander.
As an audition-only band, the bar is very high, he said. “You really have to be able to play … we’ve had people as young as 13 playing and we’ve had people as old as 90 playing. It’s really a family affair and that’s something that we love … and we take very seriously.”
Jill Weiss, president of the Westchester Band and the Friends of the Westchester Band organization which serves as a major source of funding for the group, said the band has been a community staple since she first joined as a student of Albright’s in the very beginning. Former Mayor Walter Handelman even played in the band at one point and helped register it as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 1991, at which time the village and the friends foundation began to provide funding for it to grow.
“My job as president is basically … to keep it going,” said Weiss. ”Each year we start over again from square one and hope we can keep it going.”
As the group celebrates its 50-year benchmark, she said, “The motto of the whole thing is to give musical pleasure to the community, to the world around us. It is a contribution to the living and gives pleasure to life.”
Musician Gary Dranch, who has played the clarinet in the band for 15 years, said seeing the same people returning year after year and new people joining is an encouraging sign for local music.
“It’s been a wonderful organization of dedicated people,” said Dranch. “There’s a lawyer, a doctor, an educator, professionals, students — it’s basically people from the community who have this love for performing concert band style music.”
The audience has continued to grow over the past 50 years as well, with dedicated followers ranging in age from 25 to 60. The band, which performs for free in the park, features many different kinds of music that appeal to a wide audience. Big band, Dixieland, light classics, marches, Broadway show tunes and pop — and a mystery tune contest in which an audience member receives an award for guessing the song’s title correctly — attract families beyond just those of the members of the band.
“It’s not unusual to see people approaching with baby carriages, having younger children there and having their grandparents with them, and just people who enjoy being outside in the summertime and listening to [live] music,” said Hollander.
The 2019 season includes seven concerts. The opening night concert June 27 and the July 2 Firework Spectacular were among the highlights. Performances continue in Chase Park on July 11, 18, 25 and Aug. 1 and 8. Updated times and rain dates can be found on the Westchester Band’s Facebook page.
“I hope we continue to grow,” said Hollander. “It’s nice to see people listening to music, chasing fireflies and instead of just generally relaxing, enjoying free music as well.”