If song titles are used to describe what the Golden Tone Orchestra has been going through for the past few weeks, apt choices could include "Stormy Weather" and "Day by Day."
After superstorm Sandy hit in October, both venues where the 18-member volunteer orchestra rehearses and performs were relinquished to accommodate Federal Emergency Management Agency and Red Cross workers and equipment, leaving the musicians with no place to play.
For the past six or seven years, the group has performed once a month at the Freeport Recreation Center and rehearsed weekly at Nassau County's Nickerson Beach Park in Lido Beach. The musicians, whose average age is 83, understood they were not a priority among the thousands of Long Islanders left devastated by Sandy, but they missed playing and contacted Golden Tone manager Sid Hausen, 80, of Merrick, whose wife, Barbara, 75, is a vocalist with the orchestra. "I had a couple guys call me and ask if we couldn't find somewhere to play. They really missed it," Hausen said. Even if they couldn't perform for an audience, they wanted to practice together.
Rehearsing after Sandy
Hausen called the Freeport Recreation Center and Victoria Dinielli, the center's manager, said she could make a room available for a Nov. 28 rehearsal. On that day, the musicians came together from Nassau, Suffolk and Queens for the first time in weeks. Dusting off their instruments, they eased into jazzy arrangements of "Moten Swing," "I've Got the World on a String," "Imagination," "I've Got You Under My Skin," "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White" and more. Barbara Hausen gave "Crazy" a turn, and the group ran through some Latin numbers that have become audience favorites.
Bob Ferrari, 92, of Baldwin, plays saxophone, clarinet and flute, and is the new conductor for Golden Tone. Ferrari took on the job earlier this year when longtime conductor and music arranger Julius Rubinstein retired. Last week at practice, when the timing fell apart on one song, Ferrari didn't hold back. "That really put me to sleep, gentlemen," he said. "Keep the tempo I set." But Ferrari's task seems fairly easy. Many of the orchestra members have deep musical backgrounds, and it shows in their harmonies, riffs and syncopation.
Walk-ins to the band's performances are welcome, but mostly, appreciative audiences are bused in from assisted-living residences to hear the Big Band, Broadway, swing and Latin music. Dancing is not only allowed, it's encouraged — even for those in wheelchairs.
After finding the orchestra a practice room, Dinielli also secured the performance hall for a concert that was held this week so the orchestra wouldn't have to cancel the preplanned gig on Wednesday. But she told Hansen that space for future rehearsals and performances would have to be determined day by day. "We want to do the holidays the best we can do it and find a nice balance between what we need and what we want," Dinielli explained. "These are uncertain times for everybody."
Some band members were displaced after Sandy and had to stay with relatives; others have been clearing debris and cleaning up the mess that was left. But they're also veterans of weathering storms in their personal lives, and the orchestra, a fixture for more than 40 years, has helped them to move forward.
"I think music helps your health and your mind, and it gets your cardiovascular system going as you play," said Herb Kay, who retired from his plumbing and heating business about 30 years ago. The Valley Stream resident is one of Golden Tone's five saxophone players — three of them, including Kay, are past the 90-year mark.
Kay is one of the many Golden Tone members who play with other groups. He jams with eight bands to stay busy, especially since his son, Douglas, died earlier this year. His wife, Charlotte, died 18 years ago. "If I didn't have these bands, I don't know what I'd do," he said. "When I go to the band [practice], I sit down and play and I forget about everything that happened as I concentrate on the music, the phrasing."
Fifty years a Golden Tone
George LoCascio, 88, of Valley Stream, is the longest-tenured member of the orchestra. He started with Golden Tone when he was 38. "The music, especially as I get older, is a distraction from the misery associated with reality," said LoCascio, who also plays with other musicians. He nursed his wife, Louise, for eight years through dementia before she died a year ago. "The music was comforting. And the cooperative character of playing together is another satisfaction."
A newer member of the group is former Nassau judge Sam Levine, 83, a drummer. Levine, who joined the orchestra 18 months ago, lost much of his drum set stored in the garage of his Long Beach apartment, and he had to borrow equipment from his son for the practice. "I heard them play and realized I wanted to get back to what I was doing 60 years ago," when he played with a band in his hometown of Syracuse, he said.
Tenor sax player Frank Benvenuto, 66, of Carle Place, one of the younger members of the orchestra. is a retired Garden City music teacher who joined the orchestra three years ago. "They're a great group," he said, "They've been doing this for a long time and really love the music. It's their era."
The orchestra is part of the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) of Nassau County, which connects adults 55 and older with volunteer opportunities. Members also perform at libraries and occasionally at elementary schools so students can experience Big Band music.
Sid Hausen, the band's volunteer booking agent, who doesn't play an instrument, said the Golden Tone Orchestra doesn't have an email address or a website, but anyone who wants a taste of their toe-tapping performances can search for "Golden Tone Orchestra" on the Internet and click the YouTube links.
That may be the only way to hear the group until things get back on track at the recreation center. And, as always, when they're back in the rhythm of playing regularly, there'll be no charge for admission because it's not about the money. "It's not a business thing," Hausen insists. "This is a labor of love, and as far as we're concerned it's payback time."
Before superstorm Sandy, the Golden Tone Orchestra performed at the Freeport Recreation Center the first Wednesday of the month. Concerts are free, but the band's event schedule has been put on hold until things return to normal. For an update on when the orchestra will be playing there again, call 516-377-2314.
Band manager Sid Hausen said he's scoping out public places that will temporarily house the orchestra for rehearsals, but meanwhile, Golden Tone is booked to play at the Merrick Library in the spring, and it also has a solid date for the Baldwin Public Library in November next year.