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The Sound of Summer: Allentown Band silenced for concerts in the parks

For almost 200 years, the sound of the Allentown Band has been one of the beloved sounds of summer.

But this summer, the familiar drums, brass and woodwinds of the oldest civilian concert band in the United States have been silenced. The Allentown Band was founded in 1828.

“I miss it so much,” says Ronald Demkee, conductor of the 60-person Allentown Band. “I miss making music and sharing music.”

When Pennsylvania went under quarantine because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, concerts by the likes of the Allentown Band were canceled through the summer, includng the beloved series at the band shell, West Park, Allentown.

“What a disappointment,” Demkee says. “2020 has been a disaster for our schedule. Everything is shutdown for us. We were so looking forward to 2020 as a banner year for the band.”

The Allentown Band’s season typically includes 45 concerts.

Demkee was looking forward to the annual “Side by Side Concert” with Emmaus native Joanne Pearce Martin, Principal Keyboard with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, performing Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” and Guest Conductor Loras Schissel, Conductor of the Virginia Grand Military Band and Senior Musicologist at the Library of Congress. The concert was to have been in May at Miller Symphony Hall, Allentown.

On the schedule this summer was a performance at the Pennsylvania Music Education Association State Conference at the Kalahari Resorts in the Poconos; Lancaster Community Concert with former Irish Tenor Karl Scully; a performance at the Lehigh Valley Chapter of the American Guild of Organists at Christ Lutheran Church, Allentown, with three local organists, and the Fourth of July Pre-Fireworks Concert at Levitt Pavilion, SteelStacks, Bethlehem.

“Just as for everyone else in the performing arts, all canceled,” Demkee says.

The Gettysburg Brass Band Festival in June, at which the Allentown Band was to perform with other groups from the East Coast, is rescheduled for June 2021.

The annual Allentown Band concert at Waldheim Park, Salisbury Township, is still on the books for Aug. 11, but Demkee doesn’t know if it will happen. If it goes ahead, it would be the band’s 105th consecutive appearance at the Waldheim amphitheater.

“They’re just waiting to see, but there are so many unanswered questions,” says Demkee.

In the meantime, the Allentown Band has looked for ways to get its music out virtually.

“While nothing matches live performances, we have provided a number of ways for the community to stay connected with the band,” Demkee says.

On the band’s website, www.allentownband.com, the band has posted tracks from its CDs as well as several selections from concerts that have not been previously released to the public. The band has released 32 CDs in its “Our Band Heritage” series.

The band also posted two slide shows set to music. The band’s recording of “Band of Brothers” was released on Memorial Day in honor of veterans. John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” was released in honor of Flag Day.

The band emails links to its recordings to band fans who have signed up for email blasts.

Demkee remains optimistic about the fall, although he admits he has concerns.

“If we come back in the fall, I think there might have to be a different way of rehearsing,” Demkee says.

“We have our own band hall, but it is a small room and with 60 musicians, I have a real concern about safe distancing.

“I have thought about what kind of configuration can we break it down to. But if we have a smaller ensemble, that impacts programming.”

Three fall concerts in Allentown include: Sept. 20, St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church: Sept. 27, Zion “Liberty Bell” Church, and Oct. 25, Christ Lutheran Church. The latter concert is to feature guest soloist Joe Murphy, saxophone professor at Mansfield University and a new saxophone concerto by Robert W. Smith.

The band’s big fall concert is the “Americans We Tribute to Veterans and Holiday Concert,” Nov. 22, Miller Symphony Hall.

“Everything will be dependent on what’s allowed and what’s safe,” Demkee says. “How can we safely have people in an auditorium?

“Even outdoors in a band shell, there are 40 musicians close together. How do we have safe distancing? It’s a whole new dynamic.”

Demkee says band officials will make a decision on each concert individually.

“The arts are really hurt,” says Demkee. “A lot of major orchestras are not returning until 2021. The National Symphony Orchestra furloughed its musicians for an entire season.”

Demkee has to figure out how to perform concerts with minimal rehearsals since the Allentown Band hasn’t played together for months.

He has been spending his time off practicing the tuba and putting together potential Allentown Band concert programs.

“I have programs on paper for nearly three years,” he says.

But until the state opens up again, there’s not much for a band to do.

“While we miss connecting with our audiences at live performances terribly, I have to believe that things will come back eventually,” Demkee says.

Allentown Band video greeting by Ronald Demkee: https://www.allentownband.com/

CONTRIBUTED PHOTOAllentown Band performs in the band shell at West Park, Allentown. The Allentown Band summer concerts series in parks in the Lehigh Valley regions has been canceled because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic shutdown.