In 1992, Bethlehem Steel closed its operations in Johnstown, sending the economy of a major steel-producing city into a tailspin. Twenty-five years later, Johnstown Symphony Orchestra Music Director James Blachly conceived a plan to implement the board’s mission to “bring the symphony to the city” by performing downtown at an abandoned steel mill and, in doing so, connecting the symphony with its roots in the steel mills themselves. They gained the partnership of the Johnstown Redevelopment Authority, which gave them access to the 40,000-square-foot Cambria Iron Works Machine Shop. In that cleaned up space, they produced a full-orchestra concert with music of Copland, Barber, and Schubert (the ‘Unfinished’), as well as Bernstein’s suite from the labor drama On the Waterfront. During the Bernstein suite, a film of workers in that very space, made in 1992 just before it closed, played on the windows behind the orchestra and on screens to the sides. From across the 250 up-front seats reserved free for former steel workers and their families came gasps of recognition of family members and friends.

All 1,500 seats in the mill were taken, with some steel workers traveling great distances to attend, thanks to coverage in a union magazine. It so happened that Katie Couric was in town filming a segment of a series America Inside Out, and so footage of the concert found its way onto national television. 

In ensuing years, the JSO played in two other mills and then moved on to an iconic hockey rink where the film Slapshot was made. It’s all part of JSO’s determination to bring music to all of the four-county-region they serve. But this is not to exclude other diversity efforts, including engaging the Black community. In 1923, the mayor of Johnstown actually banished African American and Mexican American families from the city following the murders of four police officers. One hundred years later, there remains a long way to go to heal such a wrong. Over the past six years, the JSO has developed a close working relationship with the local chapter of the NAACP and Christ Centered Community Church to produce concerts with a racially diverse audience and co-create events that bridge cultural divides that have existed for generations. In 2021, Blachly was honored with a commendation from the NAACP.

Photo: The Johnstown Symphony Orchestra performs “Queen from Trib,” a 2019 concert of the music of Queen at JWF Industries. Photo by Thomas Schuster.


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