Six years ago, when two veteran musicians decided to form a nonprofit concert band made up of retired members of the armed services orchestras, they knew the challenge was an organizational one. Musicians had to be found and recruited, rehearsals and concert programs had to be coordinated and the orchestra would need a home.
But the two U.S. Navy Band members -- Bill Murray, cornetist, and Edmond DeMattia, oboist -- weren't about to give up easily. They contacted more than 250 musicians to enlist 35 founding members, and with the help of Col. Samuel Laboda, then director of the U.S. Army Band, secured rehearsal space at Fort Meyer, Va. The National Concert Band of America was born.
Today, the band has expanded to 60 members, 30 of whom live in Prince George's County.
Recruiting for the band operates on DeMattia's belief that there is a vast pool of musical talent in the Washington metropolitan area. "The county and the area, by and large, are unique. Young persons from all over the country are drawn to government service jobs here, spend 20 years in a service band (Army, Navy, Marine or Air Force) and in most cases stay in the area upon retirement. The talent remained, but until a half-dozen years ago, had no opportunity for exposure."
One of the band's two husband-and-wife teams, Fritz (trombonist) and Kathy (oboist) Velke, is devoted to music on a fulltime basis. Fritz Velke, the band's assistant conductor, directs the orchestra of West Springfield High School in Virginia, where Kathy teaches music.
The other couple is the Erlers, Merrill and Dorothy. Both teach in the music department of George Mason University and both have played in the National Symphony Orchestra.
In addition to side jobs with organizations such as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, band members have widely varied educational backgrounds, occupations and hobbies. One flutist, Penny Carson, has a doctorate and others hold degrees in electrical and nuclear engineering. There are organ repair specialists and piano technicians. A bass clarinetist, Homer Campbell, says in his spare time he is active in a "live steam locomotive club."
Conductor DeMattia learned oboe from his grandfather (a flutist, around the turn of the century, with Giuseppe Creatore's Italian band) and was a member of the U.S. Navy Band for 18 years.
DeMattia, 51, has seen the National Concert Band develop a following among local senior citizens, record several albums of march music and be chosen twice as the featured band of the Canadian National Exhibition. He says he is particularly encouraged because the band has enabled talented retired musicians to avoid having their instruments "die on the vine" from disuse.
DeMattia says he is apprehensive, however, about the rising cost of operations. He cited the expense of members' transportation, pointing out that one musician commutes 70 miles round trip from his home on the Eastern shore. The nonprofit band gets its operating funds mostly from membership dues and small donations from audiences and businesses.
Bringing music to senior citizens is one of the band's priorities. "Let's face it," DeMattia said, "senior citizens get the raw end of the deal as far as concert programs are concerned."
To accomodate older audiences, the band has moved its concert times to Sunday afternoons to that concert-goers may attend church services, and then have lunch before taking in the concert. Arranging transportation for ambulatory nursing-home residents is one of the band's pet projects.
Fortune has smiled on the band in the form of Bob Hope, who has been the financial backer of several of the band's albums. One of these, a collection of marches by Stieberitz, is soon to be released on a German label. DeMattia says congratulations on the recording have come from as far away as New Zealand and Australia.
In spite of the international acclaim, DeMattia, a past president of the Association of Concert Bands of America, complains about "under-coverage and underpromotion of the band's efforts locally. The arts are lagging in Prince George's County. We must receive more support, because we're appealing to a very broad audience. I will never forget a young, long-haired, barefoot man coming up to me after a concert at the Jefferson Memorial. He said, 'Hey man, I enjoyed that. How long has this been going on?'"
The National Concert Band winds up its year of march, ballet and opera music with a 2:30 p.m. concert Dec. 14 in the Queen Anne Fine Arts Auditorium at Prince George's Community College in Largo.