A funny thing happened when the Prairie Brass Band moved its rehearsals to Christian Liberty Academy in Arlington Heights from Hersey High School.
The band may have found a new conductor.
Peter Held, director of band, orchestra and choir at Christian Liberty, is one of two finalists for the conducting job. A lifelong French horn player, who earned his music degree from Wheaton College's Conservatory of Music, he concedes he is new to the world of British brass band competitions.
But after hearing Prairie Brass members rehearsing, he was hooked.
"My office is right next to the band room," Held said last week. "I just loved the sound of an all-brass band."
Dallas Niermeyer, the former Hersey band director who started the 35-member band shortly after retiring, guided the volunteer members through 16 years of local concerts and national competitions. He stepped down in December, but will remain involved on a limited basis.
Finding a new conductor to take the band members -- which include semiprofessional players, music teachers and business people -- to the next level was an undertaking the band's leaders wanted to go about slowly.
"Conducting this band takes a real commitment," Niermeyer said. "These are people who are serious about their music. When they come to rehearsal, they really want to work."
Held will conduct the band in a concert at 7 p.m. Saturday, May 17, in the Christian Liberty theater. Its repertoire will center around an Armed Forces theme, and include everything from a medley of service songs to Dave Brubeck's jazz classic, "Blue Rondo a la Turk."
At last week's rehearsal, he emphasized the more subtle aspects of the all-brass music, including its layered texture offered by the different instruments.
"At school, I spend time working with students on the basics of music such as note length and pitch accuracy," Held said. "I must admit I was a little nervous the night I first conducted the Prairie Brass Band, because all the things my students struggle with were non-issues now.
"Here, I get to spend time digging deeper into a piece of music," he added, "exploring style and interpretation."
The other finalist for the director's job is a sitting member of the band. Mary Gingrich is the first tenor horn player. She regularly subs with the Chicago Symphony and Lyric Orchestra, as well as the Lake Forest Symphony.
She brings a wealth of experience to the role and sees herself as an educator as much as a conductor.
"This was an opportunity that came up rather suddenly, but it was one I couldn't pass up," says Gingrich, a Wilmette resident. "This is a competing band, so it's top-notch."
She points to artistry, discipline and loyalty as key components of its members and advancing them to the next level, she says is an exciting challenge.
"I think I have something to say," Gingrich says. "I've played under anywhere from 200-300 conductors over my career, so I've seen a wide range of styles. This is a big brass band, so it takes big gestures."
Clark Niermeyer, Dallas' son, plays percussion in the band and also serves as president of its board. He plays down the competitive aspect of the conductor search, saying that in the end, they may keep both, as a principal conductor and associate conductor. Either way, he says, it's a win-win for the band.