Ask Ronald Demka to conduct the Allentown Symphony Pops in a program dedicated only to James Bond, and he’s sure to shake and shake the audience. He will take on a Gustav Mahler song cycle as easily as he conducts a tribute to the Queen of Song, Ella Fitzgerald. His many awards and citations include the Allentown Arts Council’s first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005.
As quick with a bat as 007 is with his PPK, no one does it better.
Demky, the Allentown Symphony Orchestra’s associate/variety conductor and principal tuba, will retire after the 2023-2024 season, his 45th as a member of the ASO. Coincidentally, this year also marks his 45th year as conductor of the Allentown Band, a position he strongly maintains.
That’s a lot of time to make a living performing and conducting in the music world, but Demka’s musical journey spans a much longer time when you factor in his teaching duties.
“I started teaching in 1965 at the age of 32 in the public schools, 30 of which I was the band and band director at Liberty High School in Bethlehem. That was followed by another 18 years as an adjunct faculty member in the music departments of Muhlenberg and Moravian Colleges,” says Demky.
Add to that his concurrent duties with the Allentown Band, and it’s safe to joke that Demky never needed a “real” job. “You know, I’ve always been confused by the phrase ‘musicians play, they don’t really work.’ But there is some truth in this. When you really enjoy what you do, you kind of play,” he says.
A native of Whitehall, Demka’s tenure with the Allentown Symphony dates back to the 1979-1980 season, when he became principal tuba and first performed in that role in January 1980. In 1983, he became associate conductor of the orchestra, which included assisting the founding music director. Donald Voorhees and sometimes conducted classical music rehearsals and concerts for Voorhees and his successor William Smith.
Demky has also conducted youth concerts, holiday concerts, numerous annual productions of The Nutcracker with Repertory Dance Theater and most variety concert programs. When the ASO began giving more pops concerts about a decade ago, Demky was promoted to assistant/pops conductor. He also served as the orchestra’s chief of staff for 30 years.
“Ron was the ultimate personnel manager,” says ASO conductor and music director Diane Withrie. “As a conductor and a manager, he helped us in different situations. He always knew what to say in a stressful moment, whether it was a little joke or something to keep everyone in a positive mood.”
ASO Executive Director Al Jacobsen agrees. “If anything makes Ron the unsung hero of his overall work with the Allentown Symphony Orchestra, it’s his work as HR manager,” explains Jacobsen. “There was no applause from the audience for that piece. He had the necessary personality and organizational skills for this.”
What is this, music with organizational skills? You place a bet. “He’s meticulous—everything he does has to be right, with great attention to detail,” says former ASO principal clarinetist John Schwartz. In fact, Schwartz’s tenure at ASO even exceeds that of Ron. He announced his retirement from the orchestra in May after 57 years of service.
“I’ve known Ron for quite some time. It was a pleasure to work with him – a friendly, happy person, who at the same time is very hardworking,” says Schwartz. “He’s very patient, which you have to be with some musicians, and he’s particularly complimentary of the musicians – you don’t always get such positive feedback.”
Demka’s sense of humor is probably something that falls into the territory of playing the tuba. The bassoon was usually the resident of the orchestra class, but the tuba gained more and more space. Demky says, “More recently, I’ve noticed that some TV commercials are finally getting it right — now the comedian is the tuba.” (The tuba has even entered politics. Watch Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Michael Skrynak’s 2018 television ad on YouTube.)
A sense of humor is a valuable asset when the going gets tough. “We’ve always appreciated Ron’s quiet sense of humor and ability to take in everything that’s going on,” says Withry. “When scores were received late, when there were licensing issues or changes in repertoire, he always handled them with a smile on his face and a great attitude.”
So, how does one end up playing the tuba? A common story is that the kid stuck on the tuba is the one who’s late for his first band practice and it’s the only instrument left.
“It’s actually not that big of a departure from my own case,” says Demky. “What happened was that I started playing the trumpet in the 7th grade. By 9th grade, my school band director needed a tuba and asked if I wanted to try it out. So I did, and in the 9th grade I was in the district orchestra, playing the tuba. I enjoyed it and stayed with it.”
Typical Demka modesty: when asked about his most rewarding moments with ASO, he prefers to talk about the virtues of those he worked with. “Voorhees’ strengths were his connections with the artists he brought from New York—well-known artists. He could really relate to soloists. In fact, the first time I played with an orchestra was at a concert featuring Benny Goodman conducted by Voorhees.’
Demky also admired William Smith for his teaching abilities. “He had the patience to work with amateur musicians, which we mostly were in those days,” he says. “Then, of course, there is Diane, who has brought a whole new level of exciting programming to the orchestra. It expanded literature, brought choirs, dancers and visual media. Our educational outreach has also grown significantly with Diane, and that’s one of the special things for me.”
Still, Denky fondly remembers some special personal moments, especially covering for Smith during the conductor’s long illness. “I especially appreciate the conducting of the pianist Rudolf Firkusny in the Dvořák piano concerto. I remember his polite comments about how much he appreciated the orchestra,” says Demky. “In another program we had Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle sing Mahler’s Rückert Lieder, it was so beautiful.”
On the pop side, Demky fondly remembers hosting the ASO Pops tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, featuring Broadway singer Kapatia Jenkins. However, popular Disney programs hold a special place in his heart. “They are so special because you look on the street and see children, parents, grandparents – three generations who are enjoying something together. It’s really special – it’s music that connects with the whole community,” he says.
Connecting with the larger community is probably the most important thing for Demka. “I was part of the orchestra as it grew from what you might call a community orchestra to a regional orchestra,” he says. “It’s a lot deeper than just playing an instrument. There were rewarding concerts, but also long-lasting friendships, community engagement, and educational activities. I just feel so grateful and blessed to be a part of it.”
Steve Siegel is a freelancer for The Morning Call.