It began to sound a lot like Christmas.

The percussionist picked up the silver bells and started shaking them in the rhythm of a sleigh sailing through snow.

The Kennebec Performing Arts Company’s 40-piece concert band chimed in, playing a rousing rendition of “Sleigh Bells.”

It was a flawless performance, and the conductor, Charlie Milazzo, left his position up front and floated among the players, giving them a thumbs-up or pat on the shoulder. He really doesn’t need to direct the piece, as the band has played it so many times over the years.

Milazzo smiled big when the final note sounded.

“All right now, thank you very much!”

With that, Tuesday night’s rehearsal for the upcoming holiday concerts ended and the players packed up their instruments, said their good-byes and left the band room at Cony High School in Augusta.

The ensemble will practice a lineup of holiday tunes only twice more before their holiday concerts, scheduled for 7 p.m. Dec. 5 at the William & Elsie Viles Auditorium at Cony High, 7 p.m. Dec. 6 at Winthrop Performing Arts Center at Winthrop High School, and 3 p.m. Dec. 7 at Williamson Performing Arts Center at Lawrence High School in Fairfield. Milazzo’s 17-piece jazz band, and chorus, also will perform.

I had been invited to the rehearsal by bass clarinetist Linda Berry, a member of the company’s board of directors. She hoped to spread the word, not only about the concerts, but also about the fact that musicians are welcome to join the company, which draws members from all over central Maine.

They are a diverse group — retirees, high school students, doctors, lawyers, teachers and engineers — of all ages, from teens to those in their 80s.

The older members encourage young people to join so that the love of music and performance is carried on, especially in these times when school music programs and other arts-related activities are typically the first to take hits when funding is tight.

“A lot of money goes to sports — and not that sports isn’t a good thing because it is a good thing — but I hate to lose the arts in the process,” said Berry, of Winthrop.

She joined Kennebec Performing Arts 10 years ago after her last child, who played with the company, graduated from high school. Berry’s husband, Brian, is board president.

At the holiday concerts every year, an audience member’s ticket is drawn, and that person gets to share the stage with the ensemble and conduct “Sleigh Ride,” which is a lot of fun, Berry said.

I heard the word “fun” a lot Tuesday. The members, who pay dues to be part of the group, said they love playing music together.

“Music is supposed to be fun,” said Jason Giacomazzo, 28, of Skowhegan.

Giacomazzo plays saxophone in both the ensemble and jazz band, sings in the chorus, and is vice president of the board. He started playing under Milazzo’s direction when he was only a fifth-grader and performed with the Maranacook Community High School band, where Milazzo was a music teacher 25 years. Giacomazzo later earned a bachelor’s in music performance from University of Southern Maine and now works for the state Department of Health and Human Services and state Office of Information Technology.

A skilled saxophonist, Giacomazzo plays a sleek solo during the band’s performance of “The Christmas Song” that will knock a music lover’s socks off.

Larry DeBlois, 75, plays trumpet in both the ensemble and jazz band. He met Milazzo while teaching English at Maranacook and has been playing with the groups 16 years.

“We all love music and we pay money to play,” DeBlois, board secretary, said. “We want to hand it on to kids. We think it’s so valuable. Most kids play until they’re 18 and their instruments go into the closet or under the bed. We don’t want that to happen.”

It is vital, he said, that venues exist for musicians in communities.

“You’ve got to have a group like this to play with. You can’t continue to practice by yourself forever. You want to play music with people and there aren’t that many places.”

Ralph Turner, 65, of Augusta, has played tuba with the group since 1987; he also sings bass in the chorus. He creates the concert programs and does email communications for the company. Like other members, Turner lauds Milazzo as a director.

“He’s excellent; if you get lost, he’s the man you want in front, trying to figure out where you are. Anything can happen at a concert.”

As the band rehearsed “Greensleeves,” “Patapan,” “Rhapsody for Hanukkah,” and other holiday pieces, board member Sabrina Cornelli, 34, sat listening in the back of the room.

A member of the chorus, Cornelli said she joined the company nine years ago after attending a concert in which her aunt, Nancy Provost, 44, a flutist, performed.

“I love it,” Cornelli said. “It’s a great stress reliever. My boyfriend is a musician too. He plays guitar and keyboard and inspired a lot of my interest in music.”

Cornelli, a preschool teacher who also works at Bed, Bath & Beyond, said it is a joy working under Milazzo.

“He’s amazing,” she said. “He’s so enthusiastic about the music and he really gets you to feel the music.”

The company started in 1920 as the Augusta Symphony. Both the Augusta Symphony Orchestra and Kennebec Performing Arts Company grew out of that organization. In 2004, the orchestra and Kennebec Performing Arts separated so that each could concentrate on its own genre of music, but they share several musicians and maintain a strong relationship. Kennebec Performing Arts practices and performs September to June, with a pops concert in May.

Originally from Rochester, N.Y., and a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music, Milazzo, 74, of Wayne, is a professional musician who plays saxophone and clarinet and has spent a lifetime conducting, teaching, performing and directing musical theater. He is artistic director of Kennebec Performing Arts Company and has conducted the wind ensemble, jazz band and chorus for many years.

“My life has always just been straight music. That’s what I do. What’s most enjoyable for me is that I’ve got people who want to do it with me.”

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 26 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]


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