Years ago, I took a train ride across Pennsylvania as I left my native New York City to begin my pre-professional music studies in Ohio. I was young and wild and very idealistic, but I knew I had found my life’s passion in the incredible power of orchestral music.
I listened to Dvorak the entire journey as the train rolled across Pennsylvania, arriving at my destination just past dawn. I studied his scores through the night and tried to imagine the country that he had encountered when he arrived in America in 1892.
My own ancestors first settled in Pennsylvania in the 18th century, and I felt some hint of a homecoming on that journey as the train rolled past that first foothold my family found centuries ago.
But it is Dvorak’s experience, of traveling from Eastern Europe to the United States, that we are celebrating this week in our festival to open the new season, as we perform music that reflects and honors the many Slavic and Balkan cultures that have helped make Johnstown what it is today.
Throughout the week, we will have celebrations of food and music and costumes, storytelling and history – all culminating on Saturday in our season-opener with the Tamburitzans.
I am excited about every single concert we perform. But I have to admit, I’m particularly excited for this one. And that’s not just because of my love of the music itself.
It’s because I know that throughout this week, I’ll be learning more about this city, getting to meet new community leaders, people who keep the flame of their cultures alive, the food and language and song and dance and more that help create the incredible cultural quilt we have in Johnstown.
It’s also because we ended last year on such a musical high note, with Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, and I know we’ll be picking up where we left off.
And I have to admit that it’s also because there is some poetry in going from “Bohemian Rhapsody” at JWF Industries, to the great Bohemian composer Dvorak in our next concert.
Whatever music we play, we’re having so much fun performing for you, Johnstown, and what’s even more fun is the ways we are going deeper into the communities that form this city, and inviting everyone to be a part of this professional orchestra.
Since I became music director four years ago, I’ve taken the opportunity, on many occasions, to ask our audience members to raise their hands if this happened to be the first time they had heard our orchestra.
Many concerts, it’s around a third or even a half of the audience that raises their hands. It is especially rewarding to know that people are hearing a professional symphony orchestra live for the first time, because there’s really nothing like this experience.
Of course, that was especially true when we played our first mill concert in 2017, when we honored the many former mill workers who joined us at the Cambria Iron Works. It was true at our GapVax concert last year featuring Andrés Cárdenes. And it was definitely the case last month at JWF, as we were joined by many hundreds of people who had never heard the sound of this symphony orchestra before.
That concert was all about Johnstown, and was a demonstration of what can happen if everyone works together – from the Sunnehanna Amateur Foundation encouraging us to keep bringing concerts to mill buildings, with Bill Polacek leading the way with JWF going all in on the concert, to Vision 2025 and the hundreds of volunteers and supporters who made that night so special. I’ll never forget the view from the stage as I asked everyone who had family who worked in the mills to stand and be recognized, and nearly the entire audience stood up.
As you may already know, our own origins as an orchestra are in the many musical groups and societies that formed in the mills in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This orchestra, like the city itself, is forged in the steel industry.
As I have been preparing the music you will be hearing this coming week, I’ve been thinking about that trip years ago, traveling on steel rails like those made in Johnstown. My passion and belief in the power of orchestral music is even greater now than it was then. Some things don’t change.
What has changed for me since that trip decades ago is my new-found love of this city and the amazing communities that formed here, communities that formed the city itself.
It is a great privilege to get to know you, Johnstown, and for this orchestra to not only be an essential part of the history of this community, but to be a part of the success and future of this city.