NORTH TONAWANDA — Can anyone really discuss local treasures without adding the legendary, award-winning American Legion Band of the Tonawandas to the list? For those still debating, take note of the band’s Christmas concert Sunday at North Tonawanda’s iconic Riviera Theatre.
Organized in 1929 by World War I veterans at Post 264, this 90-piece band is famed for its regular national victories in American Legion Concert Band competitions.
In September, the band won the honor for the fourth consecutive year and 19th time in its history, at the U.S. competition in Indianapolis. Members have traveled the world, including a performance at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 2004. Sunday’s performance will offer and insight into the band’s winning ways as well as an outstanding way to glide into the holiday spirit.
“We’ll have a mixture of newer Christmas arrangements and a few classic ones, a few by Leroy Anderson,” said musical director Michael Shaw, in his fifth year as conductor and musical arranger of the Band. The reference to Anderson, iconic composer of short concert pieces, means the audience will likely hear his sleigh bell-heavy and trumpet-as-whinnying horse standard from 1946, “Sleigh Ride,” among others.
The show will also include big band arrangements, the “Polar Express” theme and a sing-along featuring baritone Henry Pendelton, but will largely showcase Tonawanda’s top-flight concert band.
Remarkably, it is an all-volunteer ensemble, playing without compensation. Ticket sales and other forms of funding pay for transportation to events across the globe, but the dedicated musicians are in it for the love of music, not paychecks.
“A lot of the music is challenging enough,” said Peggy Scalzo of North Tonawanda, who describes her role as “one of the drummers.”
“The pieces are very specific. We’re moving toward what’s called contemporary concert band music,” she said, noting that for a drummer, “the pieces are hard. There are time signature changes. It’s not easy stuff.”
Scalzo, it should be noted, is a jazz drummer when not in uniform with the American Legion Band of the Tonawandas.
On the matter of keeping time, her history with the Band is measured by names of places: “When we played Salt Lake City,” “When we were in San Antonio,” and of course, the invitation to play Carnegie Hall (“It was a wind ensemble festival and the legion band was remembered from its trip to Australia”).
Picture a sharp, and sharply-dressed, concert orchestra filling the stage of the Riviera and filling the beautiful old building with Christmas-themed music, a holiday performance that might exist in memory, or in imagination. The American Legion Band of the Tonawandas, a local resource underappreciated by those who have never heard it, play regularly around the area, but this is something special — and as most everyone will agree, a Christmas concert should be something special.
The American Legion Band of the Tonawandas can also be heard in a special one-hour presentation on WNED-FM, at 10:30 a.m. Dec. 22, repeated at 3 p.m. Dec. 23.
IF YOU GO
• WHAT: The American Legion Band of the Tonawandas, Post 264, Christmas Concert
• WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Sunday
• WHERE: The Riviera Theatre, 54 Webster Street, North Tonawanda
• COST: Adults $12, children $10