The Journal Gazette
Friday, April 15, 2016 10:03 pm

Retired Phil conductor Ondrejka, 83, dies

Rosa Salter Rodriguez | The Journal Gazette

During their April 9 concert, members of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic played an unscheduled selection – the Nimrod movement of Sir Edward Elgar’s "Enigma Variations."

Musicians traditionally play the piece to honor the passing of one of their own – in this case, longtime Philharmonic conductor Ronald Ondrejka.

Ondrejka, who directed the Phil from 1978 until his retirement in 1993, died suddenly April 7 at the home he shared with his wife, Elise Unruh, in Carpinteria, California, near Santa Barbara. He was 83.

Born in New York City, Ondrejka came from a musical family – his Italian-American mother was a pianist and piano teacher, and his Czechoslovakian father was a concert violinist. Ondrejka earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. 

He came to the Phil by way of military service in Europe, where he played violin and conducted with the Seventh Army Symphony, and Radio City Music Hall, where he was on the conducting staff for three years.

Subsequently, Ondrejka filled a conducting role for regional orchestras around the nation. Positions included conductor of the Monterey County Symphony in California and assistant conductor of the Buffalo Philharmonic in New York.

He also was associate conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in Ohio under its conductor, Max Rudolph, and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in Pennsylvania under its conductor William Steinberg.

Just before coming to Fort Wayne, Ondrejka led the Santa Barbara Symphony, a position he took in 1967. He also was on the music faculty of the University of California-Santa Barbara, where he conducted the university’s symphony orchestra.    

During his time in Fort Wayne, the Philharmonic tripled its budget, and his artistic leadership led to expanded programming, said Christopher Guerin, the orchestra’s chief executive for part of Ondrejka’s tenure.

"He was very innovative in programming. He brought in everything from puppeteers to (actor) David Ogden Stiers from the TV show ‘M.A.S.H.’ to serve as a narrator and a conductor," Guerin said.

"We regularly collaborated with the IPFW theater department, and we also created a partnership with the Fort Wayne Ballet, providing live music for their spring concert and for some of the first ‘Nutcracker’ performances."

Guerin said Ondrejka’s leadership also led to a doubling in number of the Phil’s chamber orchestra’s full-time players. Ondrejka also took the orchestra on the road for concerts in Wabash, Decatur and other communities in northeast Indiana, he said.

Ondrejka "was committed throughout his career to the belief that audiences should be gifted with a wide variety of works in every concert. He was passionate about bringing together familiar works, such as his beloved Brahms symphonies, with modern works that would provoke, stimulate and educate both his musicians and his listeners," said Unruh in a statement.

Ondrejka and the Phil received numerous awards from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers for Adventuresome Programming of Contemporary Music.

Because of the conductor’s varied background and training at Eastman, "many of the mid-20th-century composers were people that he knew personally and championed," said Dan Ross, who has played trumpet in the Philharmonic for 33 years.

Ross said Ondrejka was committed to exposing the public to composers such as Peter Menin, Benjamin Lees and Howard Hanson.

"They weren’t your most well-known composers, but they were pivotal in mid-century American music … and he was committed to having the Philharmonic play it," Ross said.

Ondrejka was also a committed patron of Fort Wayne eateries, including the Oyster Bar, the Redwood Inn and the Rib Room, where he could often be found after concerts, Ross said.

After his retirement, Ondrejka, who considered Richard Lert, co-founder of the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara as his mentor, moved back to the Santa Barbara area, where he pursued a lifelong love of gardening with a meticulous passion consistent with his personality, family members say.

He is survived by three sons – Paul Louis (Tanya) Ondrejka of Phoenix, Nicholas Anton (Judy) Ondrejka of Honolulu, and Alexander Josef Ondrejka of Indi­anapo­lis – and two stepdaughters – Cassandra Jean Cleghorn of Williamstown, Massachusetts, and Angela (Michael) Bolan of Cincinnati. He is also survived by six grandchildren.

Private services were held Monday at the Carpinteria Public Cemetery. Contributions in Ondrejka’s memory may be made to the Philharmonic Musicians Professional Scholarship Fund c/o the Fort Wayne Philharmonic, 4901 Fuller Drive, Fort Wayne IN 46835.

Guerin recalls his favorite memory of Ondrejka was in the late 1980s when Ondrejka had the Philharmonic play "Siegfried Idyll," a lullaby-like symphonic poem by Richard Wagner, during a concert just after Guerin and his wife had a daughter.

"I didn’t know anything about it. It was a complete surprise," Guerin said. "He was capable of being very thoughtful. I remember that like it was yesterday."

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