A Q&A with Ronald Demkee
Conductor of the Allentown Band
Tickets for the February 17th show available at MauchChunkOperahouse.com
By Geoff Gehman
There is a bridge in Allentown named for Albertus “Bert” Meyers, who conducted the Allentown Band from 1926 to 1976, during which he helped dedicate the impressively arched bridge that would carry his name. This unusual honor was bestowed on him for building impressive musical bridges between America’s oldest civilian concert band and America. For half a century he extended the mission of his former boss and mentor, concert-band king John Philip Sousa, who minted a mixture of marches, symphonic suites, opera arias, folk anthems and Broadway barnburners.
There is no bridge in Allentown named for Ronald Demkee, who in 1977 succeeded Meyers as conductor of the Allentown ensemble. Yet his musical bridges are more numerous and more impressive. He’s significantly expanded programming and educational outreach; taken the group to Carnegie Hall and on its first three tours of Europe, and supervised a panoramic, probing series of 26 recordings chronicling the band’s 184-year heritage, the latest of which, “Pennsylvania Pioneers,” includes Bert Meyers’ “Sunday Call Chronicle March.” Simply put, Demkee has made America’s best-known civilian concert band busier, bolder and better.
Demkee has selected a typically dynamic bill for the Allentown Band’s Feb. 17 concert in the Mauch Chunk Opera House, once a roost for Sousa’s group. The show, which is part of Jim Thorpe’s WinterFest, will be a birthday feast. Demkee & Co. will celebrate Wagner’s 200th anniversary with the Prelude to Act III from “Lohengrin” and Verdi’s 200th with the Quartet from “Rigoletto.” The centennial of all-American composer Morton Gould will be saluted with his “American Salute,” which marches to the tune of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” Also on the menu are songs by Bizet, Gershwin and Rodgers & Hammerstein, who 70 years ago introduced a revolution called “Oklahoma!”
Speaking from his home in Coopersburg, Demkee discussed minor revolutions and major evolutions during his 35 years of leadership inside and outside Allentown.
Q: Bert Meyers was an Allentown institution for more than half a century. Do you have any colorful stories about him?
A: I can tell you a lot of colorful stories about Bert that we can’t put on the Web site [laughs].
Q: How about a memorable piece of advice that he gave you?
A: The best advice Bert gave me was: You don’t program to educate people, you program to entertain them. I think he jumped on Sousa’s programming philosophy, which was you have to try to play something for everyone. It has to be something they not only want to hear, but something they want to come back to hear.
A good example is the band’s relationship with Morton Gould. He left quite a legacy in all areas of music: popular, jazz, orchestral. He also wrote a rather significant amount of music for concert band. A lot of his pieces are based on Americana: “American Salute”; “Cowboy Rhapsody”; “Family Album Suite,” which portrays porch-swing summer evenings. He wrote some serious stuff for band, too–“West Point Symphony,” for example. Last year we even played selections from his score for the movie “Windjammer,” which is not really well known but has some nice tunes. I hope that Volume 27 of the “Our Band Heritage” series will have Gould works.
I always relate to people who say they stopped listening to Tchaikovsky because it was educational and started listening because it was entertaining. And I love what Ogden Nash said about Wagner’s music: It’s much better than it sounds [laughs].
Q: Was there a pivotal event that made you realize that concert band had to be your calling?
A: I don’t think it was an epiphany, but it was a pretty profound moment. It was 1964 and I was still at West Chester [University] and playing in the Allentown Band. The conductor was Lucien Cailliet, who had been a clarinetist in the Philadelphia Orchestra and was associate conductor in Allentown [from 1934 to 1969]. He was also a composer, a band transcriber and a Wagner scholar; the piece we played that day was his transcription of “Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral” [from Wagner’s “Lohengrin”]. It starts out with a woodwind quartet taken pretty literally from the opera and then builds and builds into this big climax. The sound that Cailliet got from the band in that transcription was pretty special. In fact, it was mind blowing.
Q: What are some of the more significant internal changes you’ve made as conductor?
A: When I joined [in 1964], the schedule was more seasonal. We did a lot of outdoor concerts in the summer, at West Park and church picnics. Back then the schedule was much lighter in the winter months. Now, between the recordings and the concerts, we’re performing all year long. I especially enjoy our performances in churches, where we can add organ; that’s a great combination with band.
We also have more people who are college- or conservatory-trained. The band has played more involved music, more contemporary pieces with mixed meters, which Bert [Meyers] would never have done because that simply was not his temperament. At the same time we’ve maintained the concert-band tradition; we certainly still do a lot of works by Sousa and other band people, especially from the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries. So it’s been an evolution rather than a revolution.
Q: What’s the toughest, most frustrating part of your job?
A: Well, I have the privilege of working with dedicated, great musicians, most of whom have very busy schedules outside the band. I hate to use the term “A Team,” but you depend on 40 core people, and to have them all at every concert just isn’t realistic, especially when you play 50 concerts a year. When you use a sub, it may be someone who hasn’t had all the rehearsal time or the experience. So you have to program around to try to get to the same level of performance. That’s one of the challenges of the job; that may be the biggest, actually.
Q: Can you think of a particularly joyful event during your five decades as conductor?
A: The thing that just pops right into my mind is our performance at Carnegie Hall. We were the showcase band for college bands that came to play during the week in New York; I remember there was a great big school orchestra from California and a string group from Shanghai. We played some real barnburners, including the Overture from Glinka’s “Russlan and Ludmilla.” And these young musicians really responded to us; they were on their feet. That was very, very gratifying.
Q: How about one of your most touching memories?
A: A perfect example would be a performance by Dorothy Knauss [the band’s harp soloist for 67 years]. She was always very dedicated. We scheduled a duet for her and oboeist Tommy Hines; they often did duets together. And she could not play that day; her hands just weren’t strong enough. So we rescheduled the performance and she did a solo with Tommy during our annual holiday concert. That was a special moment because you knew her time in the band was not going to go on longer. In fact, it was the last time she played with us; she died two years later [at age 103].
Q: What would you like to do in the near future, within reason?
A: I’d like to program more pieces by Leroy Anderson. He wrote a lot of nice short things that were also popular; some of his arrangements with the Boston Pops were on the charts. I’m thinking “Irish Suite” and “Blue Tango” and perhaps “Syncopated Clock.” I’d like to do “The Typewriter,” although most people don’t know what a typewriter is anymore [laughs].
Q: How has the job changed you personally?
A: I think the job has caused me to be a little bit more aware of the importance of tradition and how to keep it thriving. To maintain the interest of the players and the public while maintaining the standards. To keep things enjoyable. To not mess it up.
Q: Bert Meyers has a bridge named after him. What do you want named after you?
A: I have no aspirations to have anything named after me [laughs]. It makes me think of that great line from the  debate between the vice presidential candidates, [when Lloyd Bentsen told Dan Quayle]: “I knew Jack Kennedy… Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” So I’m no Bert Meyers and I don’t pretend to be.
You know, nobody calls it the Albertus Meyers Bridge anymore; they still call it the Eighth Street Bridge, its original name. I guess the plaque needs to be bigger. So, if you’re going to name something after me, use my name and not the street name. And make sure the plaque is big enough.
Ronald Demkee: The Scoop
He’s associate conductor of the Allentown Symphony Orchestra, which shares a hall with the Allentown Band.
He’s guest conducted bands from all four branches of the American military.
He’s received awards from the John Philip Sousa Foundation and the National Band Association.
From 1967 to 1997 he directed the renowned Patriot Band at Freedom High School in Bethlehem; in 1998 he was the first teacher named to the school’s “Circle of Excellence.”
He conducts two of his former Freedom students–piccolo player Susan Wagner-Hartney and trumpeter David Golden—as well as his wife Joan, who plays the French horn.
His Allentown players include Freedom’s current band director, an Army musician, a Moravian minister, an accountant for a dairy and the owner of a mower service.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown, where he covered both of Ron Demkee’s ensembles, the Allentown Band and the Allentown Symphony Orchestra. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.