Bethlehem Press

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Students go ‘Side by Side’ in Allentown Band concert

Tuesday, April 30, 2019 by Paul Willistein in Focus

When the phrase “Side by Side” is mentioned, one first might think of “Side by Side by Sondheim,” the 1977 Broadway revue of songs by Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim. The title references the song, “Side by Side by Side,” from the Sondheim musical, “Company.”

The Lehigh Valley has its own “Side by Side” Allentown Band concert, 7:30 p.m. May 5, Miller Symphony Hall, Allentown.

The format for the concert is that the Allentown Band performs the first half of the program, and then, for the second half of the program, area high school student musicians play their instruments sitting next to band musicians playing equivalent instruments.

The 2019 concert features Col. Armald D. Gabriel, Conductor Emeritus, Air Force Band, as guest conductor, and Ronald Romm, one of the founding members of Canadian Brass, as trumpet soloist.

“We started this in 2005. It’s the 14th annual program,” says Ron Demkee, conductor of the Allentown Band.

“This year, we’re calling it ‘Cinco De Mayo,’ since it falls on May 5,” Demkee says. “We have a lot of Latino and Mexican composers on the program.”

Cinco de Mayo (Spanish for “Fifth of May”) is an annual celebration of Mexican-American culture.

There are 43 students from 10 high school bands sitting in with the Allentown Band, including those from Bangor Area High School, East Stroudsburg High School North, East Stroudsburg High School South, Freedom High School, Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Arts, Liberty High School, Parkland High School and William Allen High School.

“We give them music one month in advance,” says Demkee. “It’s been our experience that they show up well-prepared.

“We meet with the students at Symphony Hall for a Wednesday evening rehearsal. On Sunday afternoon, we put the whole thing together. Then we have a dinner together upstairs [in the Rodale Community Room].

“We, the band, rehearse the music, periodically, well in advance,” Demkee says.

“What I like about it, both as a conductor and a teacher, is that mentoring is a really great way to learn.

“Sitting alongside a seasoned player, there’s a lot to be gained that you don’t necessarily get in a private lesson.”

Demkee knows well of what he speaks. He was band director and a music teacher at Freedom High School, and prior to that, at Palisades High School, before his retirement.

“All the schools are invited. It’s up to the band director to recommend students based on participation in their school programs and honors programs such as Pennsylvania Music Educators Association, district and regional festivals. And it also depends on whether the students can attend.”

Demkee explains another element of the “Side by Side” Allentown Band concert: “It’s also based on a balanced instrumentation.”

Instruments that the student musicians will play are: flute, bassoon, clarinet, bass clarinet, alto sax, tenor sax, baritone sax, trumpet, french horn, trombone, euphonium, tuba, string bass and percussion.

“The first half of the concert is played by the Allentown Band. In the second half, we invite the students to participate, literally side by side.”

The stage is reset at intermission. “We end up with close to 100 musicians on stage.”

This year’s concert is, pun intended, noteworthy for its guests.

During the first half, Romm plays trumpet on three pieces for “A Tribute to Rafael Mendez,” a well-known Mexican trumpeter. During the second half, with students accompanying the band, Romm plays trumpet on two songs that were part of Louis Armstrong’s repertoire.

During the first half, Gabriel conducts three pieces. During the second half, with students accompanying the band, Gabriel conducts four pieces, including the traditional closer, “The Stars & Stripes Forever.”

“I think we’re really fortunate to have both [Romm and Gabriel]. These guys are icons in their field. Colonel Gabriel is a major conductor in the conducting field. Ronald [Romm] is a founding member of the Canadian Brass.

“It’s a nice mix and a tribute to famous trumpet players,” says Demkee.

Tickets: Miller Symphony Hall box office, 23 N. Sixth St., Allentown;; 610-432-6715