Johnstown Symphony, shining a light on Ethyl Smith and overlooked Black composers

Posted on: March 2, 2021

In November, the Johnstown Symphony Orchestra’s recording of Ethyl Smith’s The Prison was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Classical Solo Vocal Album category, a recognition that “all comes back to what we did in Johnstown in 2018, when we performed the piece, which had been almost completely ignored for 90 years,” writes Johnstown Symphony Orchestra Music Director James Blachly in Saturday’s (2/27) Tribune-Democrat (Johnstown, PA). Before the orchestra’s “concert of works by composers of African descent … Jeff Webb, our Johnstown Symphony Chorus director, and I spoke with [Johnstown NAACP President] Alan Cashaw on the NAACP’s TV show. That conversation led to many more with Cashaw … about the many Black composers who have written music for orchestras, much of which is largely unknown or has not been heard in decades…. I began to work with several colleagues on a database of the music by Black composers for orchestra [led by] Dr. Louise Toppin … called the African Diaspora Music Project … So far, our database … has nearly 1,000 entries…. Cashaw and I are planning some further talks in the community … to help share our ongoing discovery of so much beautiful and important music.”