A Baton Bridge Builder Redefines The Canon

Lucy Gellman | April 14th, 2023

A Baton Bridge Builder Redefines The Canon

Culture & Community  |  Music  |  Southern Connecticut State University  |  Arts & Culture  |  New Haven Symphony Orchestra

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James Blachly. Lucy Gellman Photo.

James Blachly learned from musicians that he could bring a community together note by note. When he takes the podium at Southern Connecticut State University this Sunday, he will be using his baton as a bridge, tying together that which history has remembered, and that which it for too long has left out. 

He’s hoping New Haven will have him back, so that he keep that musical work going. 

Blachly, who is currently the conductor of the Johnstown Symphony Orchestra and founder of the Experiential Orchestra, is the last of four finalists in the New Haven Symphony Orchestra's (NHSO) search for a new music director. This Sunday, he will lead the symphony in the New Haven premiere of William Levi Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony, Jessie Montgomery’s “Soul Force,” which he commissioned in 2014, and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, featuring soloist Simone Porter. 

It is perhaps the most musically diverse lineup that any of the four finalists have offered to their audiences, in a series of concerts that has ranged from a moving marimba concerto to a near-umbilical connection to the canon. It is also the only finalist concert of the four that acknowledges that without music across the Black diaspora, there is no American music. That fits; Blachly is a liaison on the African Diaspora Music Project, an initiative of University of Michigan Professor Dr. Louise Toppin.  

"I've made my career around making the orchestra experience welcoming and inclusive," he said in an interview at Koffee? on Audubon Wednesday afternoon, sipping a steaming cup of coffee in their outdoor seating. "The goal, and the necessity, is to make everybody feel welcome as they are, who they are. And people need different kinds of invitations. I think that the answer for this community, and for this orchestra, is different than for any other community or orchestra."  

Maestro Alasdair Neale, who began his tenure as NHSO’s music director in 2019 and helped shepherd the symphony through the Covid-19 pandemic, plans to step away after the 2023-2024 season. The three other finalists to replace Neale include Donato Cabrera, who guest conducted a NHSO concert on Jan. 20; Tania Miller, who guest conducted on March 10; and Perry So, who guest conducted on March 26. The NHSO expects to make a final decision and announcement later this spring. 

Blachly’s guest-conducted concert begins at 3 p.m. this Sunday at the John Lyman Center for the Performing Arts at Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU). Tickets and more information are available here.  

Blachly was a composer before he was ever a conductor. Born and raised on New York's Upper West Side, he grew up as the child of multiple music educators, each of whom helped him find his own path in the field. His mother, an elementary school music teacher, studied timpani. His father taught early music to college students, meaning that Gregorian chant and Medieval music were his first language. His stepmother introduced him to viola de gamba, which he later studied at Oberlin College.

At home, his family would sing for hours around their dining room table, instilling in him a comfort around music. Outside, the city beckoned: he sang in baroque operas, jumped into acting and studied violin at the Third Street Music School where he met a young Jessie Montgomery (then already concert master) in the youth orchestra. After falling in love with jazz in high school, he found himself floating between Small's and the New York Philharmonic, in a kind of music education he keeps with him today. 

It led to both undergraduate and graduate studies in music, including at Oberlin and Mannes College in New York. For years, he said, it was composition that had his attention. Then in the early 2000s, he had a chance for the Miami String Quartet to read his works through the John Duffy Composer's Institute in Norfolk, Virginia. A colleague suggested that he try conducting. 

"I was taken aback," he remembered. "I had never really considered it. And then at some point, I became very inspired by some of the concerts I was attending."

Those influences were wide ranging, from the Berlin Philharmonic to the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland to Make Music NOLA, which he helped found to offer string music lessons in a post-Katrina Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. In 2010, he conducted Gustav Mahler's Fourth Symphony in a church, in an effort to raise funds for that then-nascent strings program. 

The musicians were his peers and colleagues, many of whom he had written music for in the past. The show, which received coverage in the New York Times, helped get the strings program off the ground. As he conducted, he channeled the late Claudio Abbado, who he had observed in rehearsals at the Lucerne Festival, and whose signed score of Mahler he counts as one of his very most treasured possessions.

"It was really beautiful," he said. "And that kind of started things. I just remember, I couldn't sleep afterwards for two or three days, because it's so electrifying, this experience of making music with that many people at once, and just sublimating yourself completely to the composer and the musicians and the audience and the space. When things are going really really well, I feel like I'm not even there. I'm transparent."

That project became a launchpad for the way that Blachly understood music—and for the kind of approach he will be bringing to SCSU on Sunday afternoon. As the founder and director of the Experiential Orchestra, Blachly has sought to "open up" the orchestra, he said, including letting attendees sit among the musicians, lie down beneath the double basses, and raucously dance to the Rite of Spring.

He has also recognized the role that music plays in addressing and mending trauma. In the fall of 2017, the Johnstown Symphony Orchestra played in an abandoned steel plant that Bethlehem Steel left in 1992, with retired steelworkers seated in the front row. During the second half of the show, he knitted together Leonard Bernstein's Symphonic Suite from "On The Waterfront" with archival footage from the mill's heyday. 

As he spoke about the show Wednesday—programming that has blossomed into a deepening partnership with the local chapter of the NAACP—something caught in his throat. 

"That was a concert that defined my vision for that orchestra," he said. "Which is, to welcome people to the symphony, but also to bring the symphony to the city, and to the people where they are. Not everybody wants to come to the concert hall, wherever that's located in a community. If you perform in their neighborhood, where they are comfortable in a place that they already know and trust, then maybe they'll feel more welcome." 

He is bringing that approach to Sunday's performance, which will open with Dawson and Montgomery, then close with Beethoven after intermission. When he began programming the show, he knew that Porter would be part of the program, just as guest performers have been at each of the three finalists' concerts. He began thinking about works that both complemented the piece, taught the audience and added new meaning to the program.

For him, the heartbeat of the show is Dawson's Negro Folk Symphony, which he conducted with the Experiential Orchestra last fall. Completed in 1934, the work pulls a listener through three movements that fold in call-and-response, spiritual melodies, West African rhythms and a euphoric, sweeping, sound-soaked ending that is uniquely American, and also seems to say another world is possible. 

It is a reminder that Black music, and specifically music of the African and Afro-Caribbean diaspora is the foundation of American music as people understand it today. And at the same time, it's also a reminder that the composers who so lovingly poured themselves into their work were often forgotten. After Dawson's work premiered at Carnegie Hall and was hailed as a great achievement, it faded into relative obscurity. Blachly was "thrilled" when the symphony accepted it as part of the program; it will mark the work's New Haven premiere.

"I think it's arguably the greatest symphony composed by an American composer," he said. "I think it's a piece that can change our understanding of what American music is. I think it's a masterpiece. So to have a chance to give the premiere of that piece with this orchestra is a great honor."     

He also sees it as in dialogue with Montgomery's "Soul Force," of which Blachly conducted the premiere in 2015. In the piece, Montgomery begins with dramatic, deep and bursting percussion, the kind that rings a listener into being. The melancholy of bassoon comes in beneath it, followed by a tremulous call-and response. There are clear parallels with the Dawson, yes, but also of hundreds of years that came before and after him, woven with struggle and history. By the time horns come in, it’s as if something is trying to pry itself free from the center of the orchestra. A listener can’t turn away.

It is a piece that is very close to his heart: Blachly has watched Montgomery soar from her time as a student at the Third Street Music School to one of the most prolific and sought-after contemporary composers. It dovetails with his collaborations with Dr. Ashley Jackson and work with the African Diaspora Music Project.

"It has a similar message of just celebrating the brilliance and the importance of African American music and culture, and how essential it is to American music," he said. "What's tragic, what's unjust, is that African American musicians' contributions to classical music and to orchestral music has been completely ignored, and just not seen, and not valued."

"It's a humbling experience to come face-to-face with your own lack of familiarity with that much music, and to realize and acknowledge that it is my own responsibility to know what is out there," he added. "Just because I don't know about something doesn't mean it doesn't exist. And just because I haven't heard a piece doesn't mean that it's not worth hearing."

That vision extends to his vision for education, he said, which extends from young listeners to lifelong learners, and concert venues that may not specifically be designed for music or for a full symphony. He reflected on a recent performance of the Johnstown Symphony Orchestra designed for neurodivergent listeners, who attended with their aides and were able to stand on stage, handle and play instruments, and come and go on their own time.

He envisions a model that is less transactional, he said, and more focused on sharing knowledge and beginning in a place of mutual trust and respect. During his seven years collaborating with the New York Philharmonic, he worked with their Very Young Composers Program, which reaches hundreds of kids across New York City's public schools. If selected as the NHSO's next music director, he said that he would be interested in growing the symphony's much smaller analogue, which takes place at the Educational Center for the Arts.

If tapped for the position, he added, he certainly has ideas of what he'd like to bring—but he's also interested in listening to see what community members want to see and hear from the symphony. In any given year of programming, he said, the music director is answerable to not just the musicians, but also the community. He said he is particularly moved by the leadership of Michael Morgan, who served as the music director of the Oakland East Bay Symphony for three decades. Morgan died in 2021, at the age of 63. 

"There's never an end to what we have to learn about the world and about each other," Blachly said. He reflected on the cutoff some symphonies impose, somewhat arbitrarily, at fifth grade. "What about their parents? What about their grandparents? Do they not deserve our love and attention and welcome and invitation to be together?"

The concert begins at 3 p.m. this Sunday at the John Lyman Center for the Performing Arts at Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU). Tickets and more information are available here.