A longtime Berkshire tradition, the Eagles Band to kick off 'Concert in the Park'

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When conductor Carl Jenkins steps onto the Performance Pavilion stage at Pittsfield's First Street Common on Tuesday, he will hold under his sway the Eagles Band, a community ensemble 80 years in the making.

From its beginnings back in 1936, the band has sustained its mission to bring music to the people of the Berkshires, making it the longest serving continuous performing ensemble in the county.

For the first time, some 50 Eagles Band musicians will kick off the "Concert in the Park" summer series in the recently constructed and long-awaited Performance Pavilion, with a crowd-pleasing program of Broadway show tunes, Disney favorites, patriotic themes, rousing Sousa marches and, reportedly, an adventurous arrangement of the "Star Wars" theme.

Jenkins, a former West Point band oboist and retired music educator, has led the Eagles since 2014, and is delighted with the new venue.

"To have a roof overhead, not for rain, but so the sound gets thrown out towards the audience is a much better acoustical experience than any of our other sites," he said. "At first I didn't think it was going to be big enough, but somehow we all fit."

According to its website, the Eagles Band was an offshoot of an American Legion band and rehearsed in the Fraternal Order of Eagles Aerie hall, hence its name. By the early 1990s, however, the summertime marching squad of Musicians' Union members had declined to a mere dozen performers.

By expanding to include nonunion, nonmarching musicians, the organization secured its future as a year-round concert band. The main Eagles Band is now complemented by an 18-piece Big Band and smaller Brass, Trombone, and occasional Flute and Clarinet ensembles.

Each year, Jenkins programs three indoor concerts with what the musicians call 'serious' music — even some "avant garde" that makes them stretch a little, he said — and a summer season filled with Pops-style selections typically heard "at outdoor concerts on a green or in a little gazebo in a New England town," Jenkins said.

The organization includes among its 65 members music educators and even former BSO players, as well as a lot of people "who learned to play an instrument but didn't make it their life's work," said band manager Deanna Fraher.

"You spend an awful lot of time as a young person practicing and learning, and it's something enjoyable that you can carry on and do until you physically can't move your fingers any more," she said.

Fraher has played trombone with the band and its many ensembles since 1993. For years she commuted from the New York Capital District for "the camaraderie when you get together," she said, "you feel really great when you put on a good performance and you're giving back to the community."

Eagles Band membership is open to everyone, drawing from as far afield as Vermont, with summer members returning from wintering in warmer climes. Band members span all ages, from all walks of life, and have included several generations of some families.

Having that wide range of people, said Jenkins, "sends a message to the younger ones that you don't have to quit [playing] when you're getting out of high school, there are avenues for you to pursue."

"All these people have full time jobs and still want to play, they make the effort to come to rehearsal every week," he said. "It's really rather remarkable; it says a lot about the impact of music and the importance some people place on keeping it in their lives."

As a high school band leader, Jenkins was in charge of all the instrumental groups, the marching band, concert band and jazz band. It was all he could handle, he recalled.

Now he has "this army of people who do so much, from setting up chairs to Xeroxing music. All the logistics are taken care of," he said, "I show up and I can just be the conductor. Having done it myself all those years, I really have a deep appreciation for those people."

One mainstay of the Eagles Band is former band manager Dick Paul, who now serves as treasurer and event planner, as well as Big Band manager and librarian.

Paul will be 91 in August.

He carries a big load, Fraher said. "He made a goal of playing with the band until he was 90, so he's beaten that!" she said.

"People who haven't picked up a horn in 50 years come in," she added, "and we say, if you can play one note better next week than you did this week, then you're on the right track."

If you go ...

What: Concert in the Park

Who: The Eagles Band, director Carl Jenkins

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Performance Pavilion, First Street Common, Pittsfield

Rain Location: First United Methodist Church, Fenn Street

Cost: Free; bring chairs or blankets

Information: eaglescommunityband.org, (413) 499-2071.


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