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The Allentown Band: Marches And More for Nearly 200 Years!

Courtesy of the Allentown Band
The Allentown Band, 1887

The Allentown Band's first documented performance was July 4th, 1828. Almost two centuries later, the ensemble is going strong, playing old favorites, connecting with the community, and looking to the future. WRTI's Susan Lewis spoke with the Band's longtime conductor and music director, Ronald Demkee. 

The Allentown Band is celebrating its 190th anniversary. It was formed at a time when many American communities had their own musical ensembles.  In addition to serving its community, the Allentown Band was attached to the 4th Regiment of the Pennsylvania National Guard from 1886 to 1902. Members were civilians, but they functioned by playing military music for the regiment.

Courtesy of the Allentown Band

An early brass band, it evolved over the years to an ensemble with woodwind, brass, and percussion. Current music director and conductor Ronald Demkee joined the band as a tuba player in 1964, when he was a student at West Chester University. He's been conductor since 1977. He's also principal tuba and associate conductor of the Allentown Symphony.  

Demkee came to WRTI studios to talk with WRTI's Susan Lewis about the Band's history, mission and secrets to its longevity.

Today, the Allentown Band includes woodwinds, brass, percussion—even an occasional harp and violin. Is it what some would call a symphonic band?

It is indeed. It's interesting you ask that because in many people's minds, a band is a group that plays marches, polkas, waltzes, or whatever, and that's indeed part of the heritage. But as [the years went by] the Band was able to take on more substantial music; orchestral or piano transcriptions were a major part of the repertoire at the turn of the last century.

But then, in the 20th century, serious composers started writing serious music for bands. And a lot of bands changed [their names] to symphonic band or wind ensemble or wind orchestra, to try to perhaps upgrade the thinking about the seriousness of the ensemble.

So, today, where and for whom do you play?

We normally play 45 to 50 concerts annually. Our home base for the summer concerts is the West Park Bandshell; the Band actually played for the opening of that venue in 1908. Allentown is going through somewhat of a renaissance right now and the band plays for the opening of buildings, as it did many years ago, whether it be a fire station or a nursing home or whatever. We really feel a connection to the community.

Check out The Allentown Band's performance schedule

We [also] do our own concerts at outdoor events,  s well as at Miller Symphony Hall. We do a lot of different kinds of programming throughout the course of a year.

One of the things I'm most proud of is the fact that the Band realizes the importance of connecting to the younger generation. We have an education outreach program that involves young people's concerts—not unlike the Leonard Bernstein Young People's Concerts—geared specifically for elementary through middle school age. We reach 2100 students each year through that program.

Allentown Band Music Director Ronald Demkee at a Youth concert

The other part of our outreach is the side-by-side concerts, where we'll invite 50 to 55 high school musicians to sit alongside of the band members for half the concerts. Usually, we will invite a guest conductor or nationally recognized a soloist. It's really an important part of our mission and one that we're very proud of.  The Band has always been connected to the community.

It strikes me that the Band may be about more than just music. Is there a 'band culture'?

There's definitely a culture to the band tradition. It's really a hybrid. Our band is a community band, but it's also a professional band in that for the performances the musicians are paid (a rather small fee). It's a labor of love, quite frankly. It's our band. The band is governed by a board made up of band members.

And you have uniforms with ribbons, stripes and buttons that reflect how long you've been a member. 

We do.  It's a kind of a neat tradition. When we go back to the 19th century, the Allentown Band had the high collar wool coat that was used actually by the [musicians in the John Philip] Sousa band.

There's a close relationship between the Allentown Band and the Sousa tradition in that 19 or 20 members of the Allentown Band were recruited by Sousa to play in his professional band. Albertus Myers played a solo cornet with the Sousa band, and then came back in 1926 to conduct the Allentown Band. One of the first things he did [was to change] the musicians' uniform. He chose the uniform that John Philip Sousa wore in his most proud moment as a professional conductor.

The Allentown Band uniform.

Sousa was never made an officer by the Marines, but later he was hired to train Navy bands and they made him an officer.  So he wore a Navy lieutenant uniform, with the two stripes and to this day that is the uniform that the  Allentown Band wears.

As to the stars and bars that are worn just above the left pocket on the uniform -- the bar is given to a member on the first year and then a star is added for every five years.  It signifies the number of years the member has played with the band.

The Band sounds as if it's somewhat of a family.

Truly. In fact, we have five married couples within the band, and we also have a very steady membership. It's not uncommon for members to spend many years in the Band.  The 'dean' of the Band is Ezra Wenner, who plays trombone and joined in 1942. Imagine that! Seventy-six years in the Band and he's done everything: soloist, section leader, secretary, treasurer, librarian, president.

And we have a young clarinet player who's 19, who just graduated from high school last year. I like to look at the numbers of 19 and 91, bookending each other; music is for life, if you enjoy it, you can do it and you stay healthy. You can enjoy it for a lifetime. 

Well, let's talk about the music.

The music, as you mentioned earlier, most commonly associated with bands are marches - Polkas, waltzes and the traditional lighter kind of a thing, but perhaps less serious. But having said that, the march really shouldn't be looked at in a denigrating way.

The march has a very unique spirit. It's indigenous to the band. And so many things that the march can do are fundamental to good musicianship. As a teacher, you can teach dynamics, rhythmic precision, ensemble balance, form. It's all there in a three-minute work.

Do you have a particular march you could point to?

No,  I don't because there are just so many. We obviously play lots of Sousa marches:  we have an encore book that has 70 published marches that we take on every performance and the band can pick that up without any rehearsal and just play any of those at any given time. 

Additionally, we have another 70 marches in an encore book by other American and European composers. So at any given point we're at about 130 or 140 pieces on the stand that we could draw from. And I do that. I'll pull marches out as an encore after a major piece just to change the palette of the program.

Do you have any march that is particularly signficant to you, a march you've always loved, or a 'go-to' march? 

You know, this is going to be perhaps very obvious, but "The Stars and Stripes" comes to mind because so many people like it. And yet, I played for Leonard Smith, of the Detroit Concert Band, and he told us very early on, you need to approach this march as if it's the first time you're playing it, because someone in that audience will very likely be hearing it for the first time.

You also have other holiday and patriotic music.

We do several veterans programs. We do several Flag Day programs. We  have a big tribute to Veterans in the first Sunday or Saturday in December, and it's become very significant. The last three, we zeroed in pretty much on World War II and we had the good fortune of having 22 World War II veterans at our last concert. 

And you also do Big Band music. You do film scores, you do Broadway.

We do quite convincingly, I think, various styles of playing because our players are comfortable with transcriptions of orchestral works, contemporary band pieces, popular things. This summer we're doing two programs that I think are significantly different, indoors in Symphony Hall.

We're going to be playing a program with a wonderful singer from Broadway, Ciaran Sheehan, who played the Phantom of the Opera on Broadway and in Toronto. Then a bit later we're going to do another program at Symphony Hall playing the music for Phantom of the Opera in the 1925 Lon Cheney silent film. We will not be using a specific score. I've just chosen music that would fit the action on the screen—much like the old theaters had a theater pianist, organist or whatever --- trying to play chase music, romantic music or mystery music.

Well, there is something I think about brass instruments.  They're used often to create this sense of nobility. Band music can also be very romantic. 

It can be very introspective. For example, in the John Williams recording that we did on the occasion of John Williams 85th birthday. 

A Tribute to John Williams, Allentown Band, Conductor Ronald Demkee

We have some real varieties of sound in that: we do the  'Theme from Schindler's List' with a violin soloist. We also had the Moravian College Choir join us on two pieces and again, pretty introspective with the "Hymn to the Fallen"[from Saving Private Ryan]as well as "Dry, Your Tears, Afrika" from Amistad, very emotional things.

But then you have some really brassy pieces. We have "The Raiders March" [from Indiana Jones] on there and a number of pieces from Star Wars. So, yes,I think that the band can be very successful in evoking emotions. 

I see you have a library of more than 5,000 scores and parts. And you have many recordings. 

Thirty-one in our Band Heritage series and we've done just about one per year for the last 31 years. And  they range from early music,  music of the 1860's, right up through a tribute to [20th century composer] Morton Gould.  

With such a huge repertoire and access to so much music that spans so many different styles, how do you program?

That's something that I really take seriously. As you might expect, much of it has to do with the venue or the timing or whatever. It's pretty obvious if we're going to be playing a July fourth concert, it's going to be a patriotic program primarily. We've been doing church concerts recently, and there we have the advantage of having good acoustics. Usually it's in a rather large venue and we can really mix it up.

 So as you celebrate your 190th anniversary, is there anything special that the band is doing?

Something very special, in that the band  commissioned an internationally acclaimed Dutch composer, Johan de Maij, who did a piece for the band. It's about a 12-minute piece and it's in the style that is not unlike a Ralph Vaughan Williams suite.

Composer Johan de Meij

And  it's a very clever story.

[Johan de Meij] asked me about Pennsylvania folk songs that we could use, tunes that would be typical of the region. Well, there are a number of Pennsylvania German things specifically, but there are not a whole lot. There are the Stephen Foster pieces but they're not really a whole lot of Pennsylvania folk songs that people might recognize.

So Johan came up with the idea of writing some, and  he calls them Pennsylvania faux songs,  F-A-U-X,  faux songs and the titles are just great.

It's one movement, but it's five sections:  "On the banks of the Susquehanna river," "The Gettysburg March," "The Girl from Allegheny."  This is great.  "The Punxsutawney Groundhog Waltz,"  and ends with "The Allentown Jig." We premiered that piece on July Fourth this year, which was literally the 190th anniversary of the Band. 

And Johan insisted on coming to premiere it. So he came and conducted it. We had the composer conducting his own piece on the commission for the 190th. It was great fun.

And fun I guess is also part of the tradition. Looking back at that old photo from 1880, it looks as if the Band members are enjoying themselves! 

Yes, I love it. It's very rare in my experience to see a picture of 19th century musicians or anyone smiling or laughing. These guys are just a guffaw.  So often they're stoic and staid and serious. But that photo is just wonderful. 

So you're not only preserving a legacy, you're looking to the future.

Looking to the future. You have to look to the future.

That's great. Thank you, Ron Demkee.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.