Maestro James Blachly

Maestro James Blachly

I found myself reflecting on the power of music recently. It sweeps us up. It takes us to another place.

Sometimes it is an emotional journey; sometimes it is visual. Other times, we find ourselves remembering experiences from years ago, or realizing a connection that we had never made before.

I knew a very successful businessman who told me that he attended symphony concerts because “season tickets are cheaper than therapy.” It was his way of processing the complex business for which he was responsible, and finding a sense of healing. And of course it is a way of experiencing total joy, and to be able to let go of all cares as you let the sound wash over you.

So I want to ask all of you:

• What role does beauty play in your life?

• What role does joy play in your life?

I asked those two questions at our annual fund press conference, because as we ask the community for their support for what we do – provide concerts of inspiring music-making, provide countless hours of music education and opportunities for people of all levels, bring free concerts to the city in various ways – it is helpful to think about the core of our work, which is to play that crucial role in this city of bringing beauty and joy into people’s lives.

We held the press conference at the Johnstown Area Heritage Association’s Heritage Discovery Center. Right before I spoke, JAHA President Richard Burkert mentioned to me that arts organizations in Johnstown didn’t use to work together very much, and now we do. We talked about how important that is, and how we are all in this together.

I remember giving a speech at the Steeples Project fundraiser two years ago, where I described my vision for the arts – that it is not a zero-sum game. Instead, we all feed each other. 

The more artistic activity we have in this region, the more people will want and expect the arts to be in their lives. I

think it’s best to amplify each other, collaborate often, and celebrate each other’s success.

At the conference were representatives from the Steeples Project, the Pennsylvania Rural Arts Alliance, Gallery on the Gazebo and the 1889 Foundation, which is doing more and more to support the arts in the area. All of these organizations – and many more 

– work with us on a regular basis, and we all look to amplify each other.

So many of our friends and supporters came, many of whom work with other arts organizations. And many of us stayed afterward to watch the film “The Mystery of Steel,” which features some clips of the 1992 Guggenheim film of Bethlehem Steel workers before the plant shut down. Their skill and courage in handling that red-hot steel is just incredible, and it brought me back to our concert at the Machine Shop in 2017, a night I’ll never forget.

The point is, it’s not just beauty that we create, although that is a vital part of what we do. We also help to create experiences of joy.

This week, we are preparing for a concert Saturday that will feature music from the movies “All the Right Moves” and “Slap Shot,” and then an amazing wall-to-wall second half that features the performances of a dozen local artists, all of whom will be performing with the symphony.

Working with them as they prepare for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity has been so fun, to see the effort and care they are putting into this chance to perform on stage with this tremendous orchestra, and to perform in front of 1,000 people at the Pasquerilla Performing Arts Center. And then because we will all want to celebrate, we are heading to the Pasquerilla Conference Center for a fantastic after party that is all about hockey. I can’t wait for all of that.

Sometimes it is hard to describe the value of the arts, and people seem to think that they are somehow a garnish on top, and therefore, expendable. As you will not be surprised to hear, I disagree with that idea.

A few days ago, a wonderful short news story ran on Gustavo Dudamel and his history with music. He is now the most famous conductor in the world, but he came from very humble background. What made his life story possible? It was a music program that allowed him to fully flourish as a musician and as a person. He grew up surrounded by music. Yes, he was talented. But more importantly, he had the opportunity to learn and grow without limitations.

It makes us wonder in a different way: What roles do beauty and joy play in the lives of our kids?

When we think about what is crucial in a society, in a city, I think that the arts should be first on the list. It’s not that everyone should become an artist. It’s that people learn so much by making art. We learn discipline, we learn how to work hard and improve, we learn to appreciate each other and learn from other students, and we learn about places and people far away from ourselves.

There are times we try to justify having an art program because it raises student test scores and increases attendance. It’s true that music has these effects. And people think we should have kids play music because it keeps them off the streets and out of trouble. 

That’s true also.

But I think we need to value the arts and music because of the experiences that they provide in themselves. It is not just a means to an end. It is an end in itself.

And we as a symphony can help heal people in all sorts of ways, something that I will be speaking about at 5 p.m. on April 1 at the Creativity in Medical Humanities Conference organized by the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown.

At the symphony, we want to be a part of the future of this city, and so much of that comes from celebrating what we already have here. I know that there are many people who are proud of the fact that we have a symphony orchestra in Johnstown. It speaks volumes to people considering moving here, or bringing their business here.

But it’s not just that we have a symphony orchestra. It’s that we have this symphony orchestra. These people, this community. These amazing players.

I want to close with a note of reassurance. My predecessor at the JSO, Maestro Istvan Jaray, held two music director positions at the same time for much of his career. Some people have called the office concerned that I am a finalist with other orchestras, and may be offered a job elsewhere. If I am, that doesn’t change my commitment here in Johnstown. I am fully committed to the success of this orchestra, and this community, and this region.

We hope to see you Saturday. We can’t wait to celebrate the great talent of our friends who will perform with us on stage.

James Blachly is the music director for the Johnstown Symphony Orchestra. Connect with him on Twitter @BlachlyJames.

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