Sarasota Concert Band's Memorial Day concert uses patriotic and popular music to honor Americans who lost their lives in the military.
Sarasota Concert Band thrives on honoring the past.
Whether remembering its distant ancestor, John Ringling’s circus band of the early 1910s, or celebrating its commitment to the John Phillip Sousa symphonic band tradition that died out after the 1930s, the group never forgets those who came before.
Memorial Day is no exception.
“We do it as a gift to the community and an important remembrance,” Music Director and Conductor William Barbanera says of his annual Memorial Day concert. “Performing for people who have risked their lives — that’s a special thing for me.”
For nearly 40 years, the semi-professional group, which ranges from high school students to retired band directors, has put on a Memorial Day concert to remember and honor the American lives lost in battles.
The beginning of the two-hour program is always reverent, Barbanera says, beginning with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” taps and “Amazing Grace.” It then moves into a speech from a former service member, military medleys from each branch of the service and several other patriotic songs.
Barbanera says the audition-only band will liven things up in the second half with several jazz songs and Broadway tunes, as well as some other popular music created by Americans.
And for a grand finale, the program always finishes with “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”
There’s more to Memorial Day than furniture and car sales, he says, and this concert will uplift people on what is otherwise a solemn occasion.
“I think it’s about the human spirit of coming together to honor veterans but make the distinction that this day is about people who have given their life for our country,” Barbanera says. “The patriotic music and military songs make people feel good — like they didn’t die in vain.”
One of his favorite moments every year is watching veterans and family members who lost loved ones in battle stand up during their respective military medley.
“They do it with pride,” he says.
It’s difficult to keep the concert fresh year after year, Barbanera says, particularly because the number of patriotic songs available is limited. However, he puts a great deal of time into creating a mix of patriotic and popular American music that’s different by keeping track of every set list and not repeating any of the popular songs played in the past few years.
Typically the band also features a professional vocal soloist at the Memorial Day concert, and this year soprano Angela Burns will take the stage. It’s her first time singing with Sarasota Concert Band, Barbanera says, and he looks forward to hearing her perform four patriotic songs and a Broadway piece.
This is Barbanera’s 20th anniversary season leading the Sarasota Concert Band, and after two decades of conducting this concert, it still inspires him. In fact, he calls it the most important performance of the season — and perhaps even more important in 2018.
“I lived through Vietnam and have friends who had children who passed,” he says. “I’ve always thought Memorial Day was important, but now it’s huge. I turn on the news and I get scared.”
Thinking back, Barbanera says the concert he remembers most was Memorial Day 2002, the first to take place after 9/11. Around 1,300 people attended, and something felt different that day. It felt even more important than usual, he says.
His most significant, cherished memories of previous years, however, are the conversations he’s had with many patrons after the last note was played. Whether it’s veterans, people who are serving or loved ones of those in the military, those who stay after greet him with a warm hello and often a handshake or hug.
Those patrons often thank him and say their experience meant much more than just a concert. But Barbanera is quick to respond humbly, saying what the band did was nothing compared to what the American military is doing everyday. We can’t thank them enough, he says.
“Some people are in tears by the end,” he says. “And when people come up after and are moved, how do you top that? You feel like we’re not just making music. It’s music that makes people remember … music that soothes the soul.”