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Passing the Baton: Community Band’s Director Stepping Down

  • Carole Blake directs the Upper Valley Commnity Band during a rehearsal in the music room of Hanover High School in Hanover, N.H., on Jan. 20, 2014. Blake is retiring from the band after being the director for over 25 years.  <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    Carole Blake directs the Upper Valley Commnity Band during a rehearsal in the music room of Hanover High School in Hanover, N.H., on Jan. 20, 2014. Blake is retiring from the band after being the director for over 25 years.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • Kit Griggs of Norwich concentrates. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Kit Griggs of Norwich concentrates. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Richard Piotrowski of Lebanon jokes with Upper Valley Community Band director Carole Blake after he made a comical mistake during a rehearsal. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Richard Piotrowski of Lebanon jokes with Upper Valley Community Band director Carole Blake after he made a comical mistake during a rehearsal. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Carole Blake directs a fast-paced song during a rehearsal for the Upper Valley Community Band in the music room at Hanover High School in Hanover, N.H., on Jan. 20, 2014. Blake will be retiring from director of the band after 25 years. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    Carole Blake directs a fast-paced song during a rehearsal for the Upper Valley Community Band in the music room at Hanover High School in Hanover, N.H., on Jan. 20, 2014. Blake will be retiring from director of the band after 25 years.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • Carole Blake directs the Upper Valley Commnity Band during a rehearsal in the music room of Hanover High School in Hanover, N.H., on Jan. 20, 2014. Blake is retiring from the band after being the director for over 25 years.  <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap
  • Kit Griggs of Norwich concentrates. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Richard Piotrowski of Lebanon jokes with Upper Valley Community Band director Carole Blake after he made a comical mistake during a rehearsal. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Carole Blake directs a fast-paced song during a rehearsal for the Upper Valley Community Band in the music room at Hanover High School in Hanover, N.H., on Jan. 20, 2014. Blake will be retiring from director of the band after 25 years. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

When Carole Blake steps to the podium tonight to direct the Upper Valley Community Band in its annual winter concert at the Lebanon Opera House, it will be her last performance as conductor.

For health reasons, Blake chose to make way for a new conductor, although she will continue to play French horn and trumpet with the band and make occasional appearances as director emeritus. “Believe me, I didn’t give it up willingly,” Blake said during a rehearsal this week at Hanover High School.

Blake began playing with the band 30 years ago, and then served as assistant conductor before being named director in 1990. She has presided over so many concerts she’s lost count, but it’s safe to say they number in the hundreds.

Becky Luce, who lives in Lebanon and has been the conductor of a band on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, will take over as director on Monday.

The Upper Valley Community Band was founded in 1970 as the Hanover-Norwich Community Band but changed its name in 1990 to reflect the fact that its musicians came from every corner of the region. At present there are some 75 musicians in the band, Blake said, some of whom come from as far away as Littleton and Lisbon, N.H., and Chester, Vt.

This is a labor of love for all the musicians and the only real criterion for joining is enthusiasm and commitment: there are no auditions. “If they want to play music they’re welcome to come and play,” Blake said.

Richard Piotrowski, who lives in Lebanon, is a case in point. “I am one of the few people in the band who never had a music lesson,” he said.

He heard about the band from an acquaintance while living in Montpelier. When he moved to this area he sought out the band and was invited to join. He learned to play the bass drum with the help of the other band members. Tall and amiable, he stands at the bass drum, which is nearly as tall as he is, with drum mallet in hand. When the Florentiner March, by the Czech composer Julius Fucik, reaches a crescendo he bangs the drum, drawing a mild correction from Blake.

“That’s not your solo, Ricky.”

“I know; I just got so excited,” Piotrowski said, a little sheepishly.

The band plays between 20 and 25 concerts yearly, with two major performances at the Lebanon Opera House, one in winter and one in spring. At tonight’s show, An Ode to Winter, the band will perform a variety of pieces, from Rossini to a Pixar movie medley to Sousa marches.

In summer they play at bandstands and town greens throughout the Upper Valley, as well as in parades. The difference between a band and an orchestra, Blake said, is that bands, as a rule, omit the string section; there is only one string bass in the Upper Valley Community Band. Wind and brass instruments dominate, along with percussion.

Blake has no trouble getting the musicians to play. “They all like what they’re doing and when you like what you’re doing, you’re easier to work with.”

Standing on a riser she keeps the rehearsal going at a brisk tempo and is calm and direct in her instructions, interrupting only occasionally. “I’m not hearing any dynamics,” she said, stopping the band during a Big Band medley, by which she means there’s no sense of the music getting louder or softer. Later in the medley, she looks over at the saxophones: “Let me hear the saxes really wail.”

Blake grew up in Woodstock and Lebanon, graduating from Lebanon High School. She studied the piano, the French horn and the trumpet from childhood on, and earned a bachelor’s in music from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and a master’s in education from Boston State College. She taught music for 19 years in Massachusetts before returning to the Upper Valley

When she began her tenure as director, there were some 35 musicians, she said. Over the years she has overseen an expansion of the band, and taken the musicians on tours of Austria, Germany and France, as well as participating in a Battle of the Bands in Boston, and the National Festival of the States in Washington, D.C., in 2001, where the band represented New Hampshire and Vermont.

“She knows the music from front to bottom. She’s always prepared. She’s always kind and gentle with us. She can take a bunch of people ... and pull them together as musicians,” said Marilyn “Willy” Black, a former member of the Hanover selectboard and one of just three people still with the band since its inception.

“She certainly knows her stuff and she has a commanding presence. I respect her abilities,” said Cindy Boehm-Patenaude, the assistant conductor who has played with the band for more than 20 years.

When the band rehearses its final numbers for the evening, spirited renditions of Stars and Bars and the Stars and Stripes Forever, Blake, who sat down for some numbers so Boehm-Patenaude could take over, steps back up to conduct. The band plays Sousa’s Stars and Stripes with style and swagger, as if they were big, confident, high-stepping horses on parade.

“I think you’re doing beautifully,” Blake said, as she dismissed the musicians for the evening. “Thank you, guys.”

The Upper Valley Community Band performs “An Ode to Winter” at 7:30 this evening at the Lebanon Opera House. Tickets are $8 for adults, $5 for students and seniors, and small children are admitted free of charge. For information on the band go to uvcb.org.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com