Few civic institutions in San Francisco pre-date the 1906 earthquake. One is the cable car, invented here in 1873. Another one is The Golden Gate Park Band. It dates from 1882, when it was a support unit of the California National Guard. Now it’s a Sunday afternoon mainstay at The Spreckles Temple of Music in Golden Gate Park.
This band, unlike most community bands, consists of paid musicians; they even have a union contract, a fact that band director Michael L. Wirgler, of Oakland, says helps keep it stable.
“In a lot of ways,” he says, “we’re like the Freeway Philharmonic,” where members travel to various orchestras and bands in the area to make their livelihoods. “That’s how they survive,” he adds, with a chuckle.
Serious music fans can enjoy the afternoon performances, which start at 1pm, and so can families. Marissa Bellingrath lives nearby and brings her young sons to hear the band — and to play outdoors.
“We can come in and out of our seats, and hear amazing music,” she explains, as her boys toss a football under the trees behind the benches. Other small children nearby are obviously taken by the sounds, as they attempt to dance.
While the band gets paid, the performances have always been free. But they’re not city employees. Some funding comes from Grants for the Arts, the organization that distributes money collected from hotel taxes. Their support group, The Friends of the Golden Gate Park Band, also helps financially, as do donations from those who attend.
But man — or musician — does not live by bread alone. “I don’t know if people really realize it,” says clarinetist Joffria Whitfield of Walnut Creek, “but it takes a lot of arduous work to learn to play an instrument well.” Audience members can acknowledge that effort with cash, of course, and also with applause. “When people respond in a way that lets you know that they really appreciate it, it really makes our day! It’s wonderful.”
The Golden Gate Park Band will perform this Sunday in a special Memorial Day Weekend concert.
This story originally aired on Crosscurrents in 2012.