Northern Appalachian Wind Symphony wraps up a first successful season
Music in any form is a pleasing sound to the ear — but local musician Lance Ohnmeiss felt that there was something missing in the Williamsport area.
“I was serving as director of the Scottish Rite’s community band, but we were really struggling — we weren’t getting support we needed,” he said. “Williamsport couldn’t support multiple things at that same level, and there was a lot of crossover with groups like the Repasz Band and others, like the Milton Community Band, Wellsboro Town Band and the Central Pennsylvania Band in Mill Hall.”
Ohnmeiss found himself talking with Daniel Lamade, a fellow musician, about filling a different kind of niche in the Williamsport area — a wind symphony.
“I said to Dan that I’d like to do something on the level of the Penn Central Wind Band” — a professional wind band operating out of Lewisburg — “but on a different scale,” Ohnmeiss said. “The goal became to create a professional group of 40-50 musicians who could play music that wasn’t being offered in the area. A lot of modern composers since the 1950s have created wind compositions, but we didn’t have a band in this immediate area who could play them.”
With that initial germ of an idea, the Northern Appalachian Wind Symphony was born, with Ohnmeiss at the helm as artistic director and conductor. The symphony just wrapped up its first season, which consisted of three concerts spread out over the spring, summer and early fall.
A wind symphony is a unique organization, first formed in 1952 by composer Frederick Fennell, who brought together roughly 35 wind instruments — double what is found in a traditional symphony orchestra — and added a euphonium, a smaller version of a tuba.
“Fennell thought, well, we don’t really have a genre for this, so he wrote to nearly 400 contemporary composers and asked them to write some pieces,” Ohnmeiss said. Fenell found out that composers like Mendelssohn and Beethoven wrote pieces for wind, even if they were usually supported by strings or played mostly as quintets or octets, and then composers began to transcript, or rearrange, traditional symphonic pieces for wind symphonies.
Eventually, even famous composers like Aaron Copeland were writing pieces for wind symphonies, and over the years, their popularity grew to the point where they were almost equal with full symphony orchestras. In addition, the wind symphony was the precursor to the modern school band, now a fixture in schools across the country.
Ohnmeiss saw an opportunity to bring that kind of music to Williamsport, being in such close proximity to cities like Philadelphia and New York.
“We’re 300 miles away from a third of the population of the east coast,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for us.”
Although based in Williamsport, the group brings in musicians from near and far — some driving from hours away just for rehearsals, let alone performances — and Ohnmeiss hopes that in the 2017 season, it will perform in locations from Williamsport to Wellsboro and beyond.
“It’s a bad time for symphonies right now, with more and more of them going on strike, which can happen when a traditional symphony stays in one town for a long time. It can exhaust the supporters or patrons,” he said. “I was watching a documentary on (composer) John Philip Sousa, and it stood out to me that what made him different was that he traveled from town to town and brought classical music to these smaller places, but he didn’t exhaust one place. That’s our hope for this symphony.”
This season, the group performed some transcripted works, but also pieces written specifically for wind symphonies, a style that Ohnmeiss said he’ll continue next season. Performances in 2017 should begin in April and run through November, with six total planned for the year. If the positive reception the symphony has received so far is any indication – the group performed for a crowd of thousands during Fourth of July festivities in Brandon Park this July – then the coming season should hold even more success.
“We’re new, we’re different, we’re exciting,” Ohnmeiss said. “We hope everyone will attend a performance and see that for themselves.”
For more information, visit www.northernap palachianwindsymphony.org.