Screen screams: Allentown Band to accompany 1925 ‘Phantom Of The Opera’
The Allentown Band is the oldest civilian concert band in the United States. Since its first documented performance on July 4, 1828, and now celebrating its 190th year, the band preserves the tradition and heritage of musical Americana.
The Allentown Band is recognized worldwide, having appeared on television and radio and being featured in four European concert tours. The band distributes an ongoing recording project, “Our Band Heritage,” that has reached listeners in the U.S. and 23 countries.
The Allentown Band will accompany a full-length showing of the 1925 silent film, “The Phantom Of The Opera,” at 7 p.m. Aug 18 at Miller Symphony Hall, Allentown.
Ronald Demkee, conductor since 1977 and lifelong resident of the Lehigh Valley, joined the Allentown Band in 1964 as a tuba soloist.
“It’s very rewarding to be able to do this on many, many levels,” says Demkee.
The band consists of 60 to 65 members from all walks of life, including business professionals, physicians, dentists and more than 20 teachers who dedicate their time and skill.
“The ages [of the members] vary quite a bit. It’s like a bookend. Our youngest member is 19 and our oldest is 91. To our good fortune, people who come stay rather long.
“It’s not uncommon for people in the band to play for several decades,” says Demkee. The eldest member, Ezra Wenner, joined in 1942. “This is his seventy-sixth year as a member of the band,” Demkee says.
Demkee describes the members as loyal performers, a close-knit group “which really brings a lot of consistency to the band. It’s not just a group that gets together and does some gigs. We rehearse just about every Monday and do 45 to 50 performances a year.”
The “Phantom” screening is part of the band’s “Summer Series” at Miller Symphony Hall. Accompanying the silent film, starring Lon Chaney, is a first for the Allentown Band.
“It’s a new venture in that we’re collaborating with the Allentown Symphony Association to do two programs at Miller Symphony Hall,” says Demkee. The first was July’s hugely-successful Allentown Band concert of Broadway songs with acclaimed vocalist Ciaran Sheehan.
The film will be shown on a large screen that fills the proscenium. Miller Symphony Hall will show the most recent restoration of the film, completed by the National Film Preservation Association in 2011. It is enhanced, with some coloration.
“Many of the theaters and movie houses back in the 1920s, before talkies or sound film, would have either an organist or a pianist playing chase music or romantic music to help enhance the mood,” says Demkee. “There wasn’t necessarily a specific score attached to the action, but it was up to the organist to provide mood music for what was going on on-screen.
“That’ll be our job. The band will be playing in the [orchestra] pit.”
Demkee says that some years ago, a California-based band with the Association of Concert Bands floated the idea of composing a score for a silent film. Demkee borrowed some of the score and fitted it to the needs of “Phantom.”
“For instance, the film opens with a mysterious [scene] under the opera house. There we start with the menacing sounds of Schubert’s ‘Unfinished Symphony.’ It evokes the mood of being in the dungeon,” Demkee says.
The Faust Ballet and Tchaikovsky’s “Marche Slaves” are included in the score, as well as “The 1812 Overture.”
Demkee compliments his fellow band-mates with their ability to read music and adapt rapidly: “We can put programs together rather quickly.” However, this project requires more effort because the compositions can be technically-challenging. In addition, coordinating music to the time-line of each scene is a challenging task.
The program is one hour and 40y minutes, including intermission.
When asked if he’s witnessed a resurgence of appreciation for the American concert band, Demkee says, “My hope is that it’s more of a continued interest. We are very lucky in the Lehigh Valley to have good support from the community.”
The Allentown Band plays an array of venues, from symphony halls to local parks. The band is performing this year in four local churches, which allows accompaniment by organists, violinists and singers.
Demkee says it’s natural for the band to present a patriotic concert, then switch gears to classic literature or contemporary works: “We’re doing music that’s not all that common in the band world. We are able to extend the repertoire quite a bit.”
To celebrate its 190th anniversary, the Allentown Band commissioned a work by acclaimed Dutch composer Johan de Meij, who conducted the premiere at SteelStacks in Bethlehem. De Meij was also a guest conductor two years ago.
Another guest artist was Principal Tuba Player of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Carol Jantsch.
In May 2019, guest soloist will be Ronald Romm, former trumpet player in the Canadian Brass.
The Allentown Band has student outreach programs tied in with school curriculum. Free concerts are provided area youth. The band also presents side-by-side concerts, where 50 high school musicians are invited to perform with the band.
The classic silent film, paired with live music by exceptional performers, promises to be an entertaining experience. “It’s great fun,” says Demkee. “It’s going to be a nice evening.”
Tickets: Miller Symphony Hall box office, 23 N. Sixth St., Allentown; allentownsymphony.org; 610-432-6715