James Blachly did his best impression of Freddie Mercury on Saturday night, bounding onto the stage, flinging his arms wide and bellowing, “Hello, Johnstown!” to the ceiling.
The 1,400 people who had crowded into a cavernous mill and one-night-only concert hall at JWF Industries responded enthusiastically to the Johnstown Symphony Orchestra’s high-energy music director, cheering and whistling as if they were hearing the late, great Queen frontman himself.
“Are you ready for a great night?” Blachly shouted into the microphone, to deafening applause. “Are you ready for the music of Queen?”
He thanked Bill Polacek, president and CEO of JWF Industries, on behalf of the orchestra for “going all-in on this concert and transforming JWF into a sold-out concert hall.”
Melissa Komar, executive director of the Johnstown Redevelopment Authority, then took the microphone and delivered a few brief remarks on the revitalization of the industrial buildings lining Johnstown’s Iron Street, including Saturday’s concert venue.
And then the show – “The Johnstown Symphony Orchestra Presents the Music of Queen,” the 2019 edition of the orchestra’s series of “mill concerts” and the latest effort by the orchestra’s leaders to “bring the symphony to the heart of the city,” as Blachly put it – was on.
Tribute band Jeans n’ Classics, which accompanied the orchestra, had the crowd nodding along or tapping their feet to the beat halfway through the opening song, “One Vision.” Frontman Michael Shotton worked hard to get the crowd involved, whether they were snapping along to “A Kind of Magic” or clapping on the right beats during the chorus of “Radio Ga Ga.”
By the time the band launched into “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” the fifth song on their setlist, they had crowd members, such as Johnstown resident and Queen fan Terri Schenfeld, jumping up out of their seats and dancing along to the music – and the energy only increased from there, as hundreds of people shouted along to the familiar chorus of “Another One Bites the Dust.”
“I’m enjoying it very much,” Schenfeld said during the concert’s intermission.
Jessica Satava, who is in her second month as the orchestra’s executive director, said before the show that the turnout for the concert was “overwhelming.”
“We sold out two weeks ago,” she said. “Everyone kept telling me, ‘Johnstown’s a last-minute town. You won’t sell anything until the last second,’ but it was crazy, the response. People are clearly really responding to the idea of having the orchestra playing in the city, in a historic space that’s been redeveloped.”
She framed Saturday’s show as the natural evolution of a series of mill concerts that began in 2017 when the orchestra played a wildly popular concert to a standing-room-only crowd at the then-vacant former Bethlehem Steel machine shop on Iron Street.
“Every time I talk to someone in Johnstown who has any memory of the symphony whatsoever,” she said, “they say, ‘That first mill concert was the night to remember.’ ”
From there, she said, it “was a natural choice to move into one of the steel mills that had been redeveloped, like GapVax,” she said, referring to the Moxham-based manufacturer of vacuum trucks that played host to the orchestra’s 2018 mill concert.
Saturday night’s concert, the third in the series, was also held in a former steel mill – the former 8-inch mill of Bethlehem Steel, now an active part of JWF Industries’ complex at 84 Iron Street.
“Bill Polacek and James (Blachly) are big idea guys,” Satava said. “They got together and started talking, and James said, ‘Could we do something at JWF in the old 8-inch mill?’ That’s how it all started. James has such a vision to bring the symphony to the city – and specifically to the old steel mills because they have such a powerful presence in people’s lives in Johnstown.”
As if to confirm Satava’s observation, just before the intermission, Blachly turned to face the crowd and asked anyone who had a family member who worked in one of Johnstown’s steel mills to stand up – and then noted that, from the stage, it looked to him like just about everyone in the room had stood.
Jeans n’ Classics and the Johnstown Symphony Orchestra were joined during the second half of the concert by a chorus made up of select students of several local high school music departments – Conemaugh Township, Richland and Bishop McCort Catholic – and of members of the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown chorus and the Johnstown Symphony Chorus.
The concert was supported by a grant from the Sunnehanna Amateur Foundation and by Johnstown’s Vision 2025 initiative.