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Meet The Golden Gate Park Band, A Grand City Tradition

Meet The Golden Gate Park Band, A Grand City Tradition
Photo: trophygeek/Flickr
By Jonathan Gerfen - Published on June 04, 2015.

In the three decades after the Gold Rush caused its population to explode, San Francisco struggled to fit in with the older and more established cities of America and Europe. One thing that the young city was missing was a cosmopolitan music scene—the San Francisco Symphony wouldn’t come along until the next century.

But the city had opened a world-class municipal park just a few years earlier, and it was in that park that a professional concert band called the Golden Gate Park Band was founded in September of 1882. The band has been playing there ever since.

The band, now in its 133rd season, is composed of about 30 musicians. Its conductor and music director is Michael Wirgler, who has been in the band for over 40 years and directed it for the past 16. In addition to conducting the band onstage, Wirgler is responsible for choosing the music to be played each week. Thanks to the band's extensive archives, he's occasionally able to choose pieces that hasn’t been played in over fifty years. The collection continues to add new compositions, too.

Photo: Golden Gate Park Band

The rest of the band is composed of professional musicians (they're unionized members of Musicians Union Local No. 6), who get together each Sunday morning to rehearse for their weekly performance at 1pm. With only one hour of rehearsal preceding the two-hour show, it's rare for the band to rehearse every song in its entirety before performing. "We have to be experienced, and great sight readers,” says first trumpet Mark Nemoyten. "We often have just 5 or 10 minutes of rehearsal time on a piece that a regional orchestra might rehearse for an hour. We seldom get to see the music ahead of the rehearsal."

The band performs in the Spreckels Temple of Music (a.k.a. "the bandshell"), located at the head of the Music Concourse and flanked by the Academy of Sciences and the de Young Museum. The current bandshell was constructed as a permanent feature of the concourse in 1900, just six years after the concourse itself was created for the 1894 Midwinter Fair. The band has played there for almost all of the past 115 years, except for structural-repair periods following the 1906 and 1989 earthquakes.

Photo: Mark Nemoyten

Each Sunday at 1 pm from April through October, the band performs a free show, with the theme changing weekly. Special guests are often part of the lineup: on June 21st, for example, the band will host a circus-themed event, with Circus Bella joining them onstage. Shows featuring the music of different cultures, including Hungary, Spain, and the Ukraine, are also planned for this year. The season finale, on October 4th, is an all-request program. 

On June 13-14, the band will host the 2015 Golden Gate Park Band Festival, for which it shares the stage with ten other bands from across the Bay Area and as far away as Los Angeles. The various bands will perform from 11am-5pm on both Saturday and Sunday, with the Golden Gate Park Band playing their usual 1pm slot on Sunday afternoon. Unlike many concerts in the park, this two-day music festival will be free and open to the public.

The band has a longstanding tradition of playing every Independence Day, regardless of the day of the week on which it falls. This July 4th, which is a Saturday, the band will perform a patriotic set for what is typically its biggest audience of the year. ("Stars and Stripes Forever" is the traditional closer.) But the Saturday concert won't keep the band from returning to the stage the following day for its usual Sunday show.

Playing year after year with the same band in the same bandshell in the park could make even the most enthusiastic musician jaded. But as Nemoyten explains, "There have been many days when we are sitting on stage during a beautiful day in the park, seeing the great view of the music concourse, the museum and the audience enjoying the concert, and just feel the joy of being part of such great band in such a glorious setting. I think we all feel that."