In Memory of Maestro Ronald Ondrejka (1932-2016)
Former conductor of the Santa Barbara Symphony, died suddenly early in the morning of April 7, 2016 at his home in Carpinteria where he lived with his wife, Elise Unruh.
Ondrejka was born into a musical family in 1932 in Manhattan. His Italian-American mother was a pianist and piano teacher; his Czechoslovakian father was a concert violinist. After completing his undergraduate and graduate studies at the Eastman School of Music in 1954, Ondrejka went on to pursue a conducting career that put him on the podium of major symphony orchestras and brought him into close contact with the finest musicians in the world.
After military service touring Europe with the Seventh Army Symphony as violist and conductor, winning much praise for the ensemble wherever it traveled, he was on the conducting staff of Radio City Music Hall for three years. In 1961, he was a prize winner in the Royal Liverpool International Conducting Competition. With the recommendation and sponsorship of the American Symphony Orchestra League, the Rockefeller Foundation awarded Ondrejka a grant for advanced conducting study.
For many years, he moved between the coasts to assist his mentor, Richard Lert, at the annual Association of Symphony Orchestra League conducting workshops at Orkney Springs, Virginia and Asilomar, California. Following a year as Music Director of the Monterey County (CA) Symphony, he accepted the invitation of Josef Krips to become Assistant Conductor of the Buffalo Philharmonic and subsequently went on to serve as associate conductor of both the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (under Max Rudolph) and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (under William Steinberg).
During his 12-year tenure with the Santa Barbara Symphony (1967-1979), Ondrejka brought stability and growth to the organization. The size of the orchestra grew, as did the number of concerts and youth programs. During these years, he was also a faculty member in the Music Department at UCSB, where he was in charge of the conducting program and also directed the University Symphony, inspiring countless young musicians who have gone on to successful professional careers as orchestral musicians and conductors.
His final post was as Music Director of the Fort Wayne (IN) Philharmonic (1978-1993). Under his artistic leadership the Philharmonic more than tripled its budget, increased the number of full-time core orchestra musicians and expanded its programming to include chamber music, pops and chamber orchestra series.
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. As a result, he received numerous awards from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) for Adventuresome Programming of Contemporary Music.
Following his retirement from conducting in 1993, Ron pursued his lifelong love of gardening and reading. Adapting with some reluctance but great resilience to the drought conditions of Southern California, he nurtured his garden into a miniature marvel of color and texture: intricate rock walls, subtle hues of green, and the vibrant roses that expressed his passionate soul. Just as he tended the musicians in his orchestras, moving them to produce glorious sounds that exceeded their expectations, he tended his plants with daily discipline, patience and vision. No leaf out of place, no note accidental.
He is survived by his wife, Elise Unruh; by his sons, Paul Louis of Phoenix, Arizona, Nicholas Anton of Honolulu, Hawaii and Alexander Josef of Indianapolis, Indiana, and their families; and by his step-daughters, Cassandra Jean Cleghorn of Williamstown, Massachusetts and Angela Jean Bolan of Cincinnati, Ohio, and their families. Private services were held on April 11 at the Carpinteria Public Cemetery. Contributions in his memory may be made to any of the Education Programs at the Santa Barbara Symphony or to the Philharmonic Musicians' Professional Scholarship Fund at the Fort Wayne Philharmonic.