Donald Spieth was a stalwart of the Lehigh Valley music community.
The founder of the Moravian University Orchestra, Spieth conducted performances in Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Center, and his shows received praise from the New York Times. The Philadelphia Orchestra’s concertmaster, David Kim, once questioned why Spieth had not pursued an international conducting career.
Colleagues say he had the skill and passion to take his career far beyond the Lehigh Valley. But according to his longtime Moravian University colleague Larry Lipkis, he never wanted to stray too far from his adopted hometown of Bethlehem.
“He could have had an international career, he didn’t want that kind of life. He was a very humble guy who loved working with the Lehigh Valley, working with local musicians,” Lipkis said. “He didn’t have any of the air of one of those high-powered, jet-setting conductors. He was terrifically talented and very easy to work with.”
Spieth, 81, died unexpectedly at his home Sept. 1. He is survived by his wife, Llyena, two sons, three grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and two stepchildren.
Born and raised in a small Iowa town, Spieth earned bachelor’s and graduate degrees from the University of Iowa before studying conducting at Juilliard in New York.
His career in Bethlehem began in 1967 as a national teaching fellow at Moravian University, where he founded the school’s orchestra that same year.
He left Moravian University in the early 1980s to lead the Lehigh Valley Chamber Orchestra and remained until 2007, when the orchestra closed for financial reasons.
He returned to Moravian as an artist-in-residence about 10 years ago and continued conducting the orchestra until his death. He had planned to make the 2023 season with the orchestra his last before retiring, colleagues said.
Spieth was known among his students and colleagues for his patience and grace working with the musicians.
“Watching him work was inspiring, because he did have high standards but he also had lots of patience,” said Ron Demkee, director of the Allentown Band. “I also saw that with adults, whether they were amateur or professional, he was demanding yet patient and I think that’s one of the things people really remember him for.”
Carol Traupman-Carr can testify to that firsthand. Traupman-Carr, provost of Moravian University, met Spieth as a freshman music major in 1982. She worked under him as a violinist for the orchestra, and said he was an ideal teacher and leader: even-tempered, encouraging and kind.
“He treated everybody on the ensemble the same whether they were a Juilliard grad or a first- or second-year music major or a nonmusic major,” Traupman-Carr said. “Whether you were sitting in the back of the orchestra or the front of the orchestra, everyone was part of that same ensemble, everyone was equally important.”
Llyena Boylan, Spieth’s wife of more than 20 years, said he remained humble even as he achieved something of a celebrity status in the classical music world. She recalled Yo-Yo Ma, the acclaimed cellist, once going out of his way to shake Spieth’s hand following Ma’s performance at the Tanglewood Music Festival.
Ma thanked him for his advocacy for contemporary classical music, Boylan recalled.
Indeed, during his time at the Lehigh Valley Chamber Orchestra, Spieth advocated for contemporary classical compositions to be played alongside household names like Mozart.
According to a 2007 Morning Call article, Spieth, “converted a fair share of skeptical listeners into new-music supporters.”
Lipkis, a local composer, said he always trusted Spieth to do his music justice when bringing it to life with the Moravian Orchestra.
“When he conducted my music sometimes I thought, gosh, this is going to be really hard for him to teach, there’s lots of tricky rhythms and melodies, he was always calm and said, ‘we can do this, don’t worry,’ ” Lipkis said. “He had a very professional, reassuring air about him. And I knew from the beginning he could do anything we asked him to do.”
Music was his life’s passion, but his family always came first, Boylan said. He enjoyed keeping up with his grandson Jordan Spieth’s professional golf career — a 2010 Morning Call article interviewed Donald about his fanaticism for the sport, back when Jordan was the nation’s top-ranked junior golfer and made the PGA tour for the first time.
“I just couldn’t wait until 3 o’clock every day for the coverage to come on again,” Donald said in the 2010 article.
But Boylan said he was just as proud of his grandson’s charitable endeavors like the Jordan Spieth Family Foundation, which raises money for pediatric cancer. He loved spending time with all of his children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and stepchildren, Boylan said.
“We have a large family, extended family and everybody loved him,” Boylan said. “He was wonderful, he was kind and caring and respectful and loving. We had a wonderful life.”
Spieth’s memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Sanctuary of Central Moravian Church in Bethlehem. Donations in Spieth’s memory may be made to Moravian University in support of the orchestra.
Reporter Lindsay Weber can be reached at Liweber@mcall.com.
https://www.mcall.com/2023/09/11/terrifically-talented-family-and-friends-mourn-donald-spieth-founder-of-moravian-university-orchestra-and-grandfather-of-pro-golfer-jordan-spieth/ Donald Spieth, Moravian orchestra founder, remembered