BY TOM LAVIS
A long and distinguished record of service to the community since 1929 is the hallmark of Johnstown Symphony Orchestra.
The symphony has become the unrivaled leader of the performing arts in the region and has soldiered on since its founding by a group of local musicians.
The symphony developed into a strong community orchestra despite a history of obstacles.
It weathered the Great Depression with the help of the Johnstown Municipal Recreation Commission. It also survived declining membership because of World War II as well as numerous economic downswings in its 83-year history.
When NBC showcased the orchestra on a radio broadcast in 1939, it was hailed as one of the finest independent groups in the eastern United States.
Since its beginnings, the symphony has tried to respond to the needs of the community. Its development has not always been smooth, and finding funds always has been a challenge.
The orchestra can be viewed as the hub of the cultural wheel in the area.
When talking about the history of Johnstown Symphony Orchestra, who better to ask than Carmel Coco, a man who performed as a bassoonist with the orchestra for 61 years.
Coco, 94, continues to ply his trade six days a week at Yankee Shoe Repair Factory Inc. in downtown Johnstown.
“I was 17 years old and was asked by conductor Silvio Landino (1932–35) to perform,” said Coco. “He heard me play in a Joseph John’s concert and invited me to rehearsal at Greater Johnstown High School.”
But Coco was an unwilling participant and didn’t go. Landino marched into the shoe shop to talk about the position with Coco’s father, Michael.
After hearing what the conductor had to say, Coco’s father told the maestro that his son would be at rehearsal the following Monday evening.
At the time, the symphony was comprised of local music teachers, many of whom came from the College of Music on Franklin Street.
At the tender age of 10, Coco was hospitalized for nine months with an injured leg.
As part of his recovery, he was given bassoon lessons by his uncle, Charles Manganello, who was a member of a fledgling Johnstown Symphony Orchestra.
When he was able to return to school, he joined the Joseph Johns Junior High School Band and Orchestra. He later joined the high school orchestra as a bassoonist and performed with the district and all-state bands and orchestras, where he shared the stage with a young flute player named Henry Mancini.
Coco never imagined that his tenure with the orchestra would span six decades.
“We played Bach, Mozart, Brahms and Beethoven,” he said. “We were nowhere near as sophisticated as the current musical programs, with their more technical pieces and wonderful guest artists from all over the world.”
As the oldest living, retired member of the orchestra, Coco has been associated with each of the symphony’s nine conductors except its first, Hans Roemer (1929–32).
After Landino, Theodore Koerner (1935–44) guided the orchestra through the war years.
Russell Gerhart of Indiana had a stint as conductor from 1944-51.
The orchestra was reorganized in 1953, after virtually falling apart, by Manfred Kuttner (1951–61), a cantor originally from Frankfurt, Germany.
In 1958, Johnstown Symphony Orchestra established the symphony chorus, the youth symphony and the symphony auxiliary, a corps of volunteers which has since added a branch in Somerset County. In the early 1960s, community support from individuals and businesses surged.
In 1961, Phillip Spurgeon became the first full-time resident conductor. As the orchestra improved in the quality of its performance, area businesses and the Johnstown Symphony Auxiliary began a combined effort to provide the organization with financial support.
Spurgeon held the baton until 1969 and was considered a technician and taskmaster who demanded excellence and precision.
Michael Semanitzky (1969–73) took up the reins after Spurgeon and focused the orchestra on presenting dynamic programs.
He was in his late 20s or early 30s when he took the helm.
Coco said he was a man with flair who was quite theatrical.
“He would walk out on stage wearing a sizable scarf,” Coco said. “Before stepping to the podium, a woman would come out and carry the scarf off stage.”
From 1973-83, Donald Barra enjoyed presenting sweeping, romantic pieces. Barra rejected a Fulbright Scholarship for European conducting studies to accept the post in Johnstown.
The symphony saw some of its greatest growth under Barra, who instituted the symphony’s seven-concert subscription series and pops concerts at Pitt-Johnstown.
Former general manager Jeanne Gleason of Westmont said the symphony has been the primary cultural source to the region because of its longevity.
Serving in the early 1980s, Gleason went from being president of the board to taking interim terms as executive director.
“It was a huge learning curve for me as I had only dealt administratively from the board position,” Gleason said. “Fortunately, Patricia Hofscher came to work there and knew the music, orchestra personnel, how to staff an orchestra, etc.”
Gleason also was responsible for creating and meeting a budget, making payroll and getting the orchestra on the stage.
Jeff Lavine from Pitt-Johnstown was on the board and helped her learn the numbers side of the operation.
A lot happened in those few years though, as Gleason recalled how the orchestra had no music director in 1983-84, Barra resigned in July 1983 to accept a staff position with San Diego State University.
“We are so fortunate to have an orchestra of this caliber in Johnstown, what with our declining population,” Gleason said. “And also fortunate that there are people, businesses and corporations who continue to recognize this asset and step up with support each year.”
The sponsorship program was one that the board started when Gleason was the executive director and without it, the future of the orchestra would be threatened.
“Cultural organizations will always face financial stress, but the JSO keeps moving forward,” she said. “ When I was there, the youth orchestra grew and started to travel for the in-school concerts; we started the Chamber Orchestra Series in the Lee auditorium, with Lee Hospital as a partner, led by Dr. Alan Campbell; the auxiliary grew and raised substantial dollars to keep the orchestra healthy; we collaborated with Pitt-Johnstown and Rodney Eatman and produced the orchestra’s first musicals.
“So regardless of ever-present financial stress, the JSO has always tried new venues and new undertakings,” Gleason said., “After more than 80 years, building and retaining this musical giant is a true testimony of its value and impact in our community.”
Gleason said much of that success is credited to Istvan Jaray, who came to Johnstown from New York City in 1983. He is the longest tenured music director in the history of the symphony with 29 years.
“We conducted a yearlong search for a new maestro, and had a season of guest conductors for each concert,” she said. “The audience loved it.”
After Jaray was chosen, the orchestra became a finely honed and disciplined machine.
“He had expectations for professionalism from each of the musicians” Gleason said.
Under Jaray’s leadership, there have been many changes in the scope of the orchestra’s programs, productions of fully-staged opera, ballet and musicals featuring local talent, free pops concerts, annual young people’s concerts and a bi-annual young artist’s competition.
“I believe I was the first of the seven candidates to conduct in 1983,” Jaray said. “My first impression was one of an orchestra that was not in the best of shape,” he said. “After three or four rehearsals during my week in Johns-town, I discovered a lot of talented people and knew that, in time, it could become an excellent metropolitan orchestra.”
After nearly three decades at the helm, Jaray said he could have never imagined staying in Johnstown that long.
“I thought it may be a stepping stone,” he said. “I told myself I would stay as long as there was room for growth.
“There were temptations to move on, but once I evaluated my position, I chose to stay because of the high caliber of the musicians,” he said.
In 1992, the symphony moved to the Pasquerilla Performing Arts Center on the Pitt-Johnstown campus, which was built to be the symphony’s official home. That was the same year the symphony’s opera festival was established.
The festival has become the symphony’s largest fundraiser each year.
Karen Azer of Westmont has been a board member for 22 years and serves as chairwoman of the opera festival.
“The symphony is such an important part of Johnstown’s cultural community,” Azer said. “I feel many people don’t realize how vital it is for a community to have an orchestra that rivals many major metropolitan symphonies.”
The festival was established by the late Frank and Sylvia Pasquerilla to introduce opera in a less formal atmosphere and to help bring financial stability to the Johnstown symphony.
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