BY KATIE MATTESON
The Racine Concert Band will strike up its 96th season at the Racine Zoo on Sunday, July 1 at 7:30 p.m. for its 1,481st free concert.
The concerts continue weekly through Aug. 12, with a 7 p.m. start time for the August shows. The gates open a half hour before the first downbeat at the Walton Avenue and Augusta Street entrances.
Concert-goers will enjoy the tranquil evening view of Lake Michigan while relaxing on lawn chairs or on blankets as they watch Music Director and Conductor Mark Eichner and his band of 40 musicians perform a variety of ear-pleasing tunes.
“All our selections have to pass the accessibility test,” Eichner explained. “It has to be music the audience will like the first time they hear it.”
Eichner, who begins his 17th year leading the band this season, said the programs include a mixture of classical music, pops favorites, marches, theater and folk music, along with music that features soloists from the band and guest artists.
“We’re committed to the great American tradition of family-friendly outdoor concerts in the style of the famous Sousa Band,” Eichner said. “It’s not unusual to see three generations of a family at a Racine Concert Band performance.”
As a special treat, the band will perform a world premiere on July 22, featuring flutist Beth Kaprelian, a Racine Unified School District music educator and a member of the band since 1994. Donald Young, who directed the Horlick High School bands for 30 years, will conduct his composition called “Effulgence.”
For complete listing of each week’s program, visit the band’s website, racineconcertband.com.
In addition to its zoo concerts, the RCB performs joint school year concerts with the Park, Horlick and Case high school bands and the Fourth Fest parade.
A bit of history
The band officially started on June 11, 1923 when the Racine Park Board Band performed its first concert at Horlick Park. However, the origins of band music in Racine go back further.
In his 2010 book, “And the Band Played On,” former RCB Conductor and Business Manager Delbert Eisch traced the first band back to 1851 when a German immigrant named Jacob Esser settled in Racine. He organized the Governor’s Guards Band, made up of nine players. John P. Jones organized the second band named the American Bugle Band in 1858. It had 13 members and when the Civil War broke out, the band often played at patriotic gatherings to rally recruits and stir enthusiasm.
Eisch chronicled “a flood of bands” that came on the scene between 1859 and 1922.
Henry Schulte established himself as a local bandleader after the turn of the century, and his band played regularly at various parks in Racine. He even received financial support from the city as early as 1911 when the city council budget included a line item for $57.50.
His popularity continued into the 1920s, when he asked the Racine City Council for an annual appropriation to present a series of 12 free concerts in city parks. The request was granted and the Racine Park Board Band was born.
In addition to Horlick Park, concerts were held at Washington Park, Lake Park, North Beach and East Park on Sunday afternoon and Thursday evenings.
The Park Board Band started playing concerts at the zoo in 1944 and concerts at the North Beach gazebo were eliminated in 1952. The concerts continued at Washington Park through 1964, until the bandshell became deteriorated and had to be torn down.
With the purchase of a “Wenger Showmobile” in 1966, the band took its show on the road. They played at parks around the city on Wednesdays and played at the zoo on Sunday afternoons.
The portable stage was replaced with the Kiwanis Memorial Amphitheatre at the zoo in 1984.
In 1967 the band board petitioned the Parks and Recreation Department to change the name to the Racine Municipal Band.
Eisch described the Racine Municipal Band’s selection as a Sudler Silver Scroll recipient from the John Philip Sousa Foundation in 1994 as the “most defining moment” in the band’s history. The purpose of the award is “to identify, recognize and honor those community bands that have demonstrated particularly high standards of excellence in concert activities over a period of several years, and which have played a significant role in the cultural and musical environment in their respective communities.”
In 1996, the group became known as the Racine Concert Band.
The leaders of the band
Surprisingly, during the band’s near century of providing free concerts to the community, there have only been five conductors.
After Henry Schulte died in November 1932, his son Frederick took over the band the following year. He had played French horn with band since 1924 and later became the assistant director to his father. He is also credited with founding the Racine Symphony Orchestra in 1931 and served as its conductor for 25 years in addition to teaching music in the public schools for 36 years.
John Opferkuch took over the band in 1943 and retired in 1973. Prior to his appointment, the cornet player served as the assistant director of both the Holton Elkhorn Band and the Elkhorn Symphony Orchestra, as well as working as a tester of brass instruments for the Frank Holton Company of Elkhorn. He’s also credited with starting the band program at St. Catherine’s High School in Racine.
When Eisch learned of Opferkuch’s imminent retirement, the Racine instrumental music teacher threw his hat in the ring was was hired. His tenure lasted until 2001, during which time he conducted 640 concerts. He was honored with awards from the American Federation of Musicians for excellence in teaching and community service, as well as the prestigious Diploma of the Sudler Order of Merit from the John Philip Sousa Foundation.
Eichner was named music director and conductor in 2002 and appointed his predecessor as business manager. Eisch continued in that role until his retirement in 2017.
When Eichner took on his new role, he was serving as the Music Department Chair at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside and performing in the area as professional trumpet player. He also conducted the UW-Parkside Wind Ensemble for 32 years and founded the UW-Parkside Community Band in 1990. He retired from teaching in 2014, but continues an active performance schedule in addition to his responsibilities with the RCB.
Band funding and 100th season
Financial support for the band has evolved over years. While in the past the City of Racine paid the entirety of the band’s expenses, today municipal funding only covers approximately 55 percent of the band’s budget, along with an in-kind donation of office space in the City Hall Annex.
With the reduction of public funding, the band has come to rely on private donations. Other income sources include corporate gifts, program advertising and donations received during the summer concerts. To make a donation, send a check to Racine Concert Band, City Hall Annex, Room 15, 800 Center St., Racine, WI 53403 or online at racineconcertband.com.
The band is also looking for community partners to help celebrate its 100th season in 2022. Those interested joining in the planning of the centennial celebration should contact the band at firstname.lastname@example.org.