By KAYLA PONGRAC
Our Town Correspondent
In 1985, Dr. Albert K. Mall was recruited by Mercy Hospital to join the gynecology and obstetrics department. He wasn’t sure at the time if he and his family were going to stay in Flood City.
“I thought it might be temporary,” said the doctor, who grew up in Bordentown, New Jersey, and trained for OB/GYN at Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia. “But I liked it so much, I stayed. I loved the area, the opportunities for my kids, the outdoor environments, the friendliness of the people. (Moving to
Johnstown) was an unexpected blessing.”
Mall and his wife, Helen, along with their three children, Zachary, Adrian and Rachel, embraced what Johnstown had to offer. For Mall and his wife, that included attending Lee Hospital Auxiliary’s chamber music concert series. The concerts took place inside the State Theater along Main Street before transferring to Lee Auditorium. Built in 1926, State Theater was called Johnstown’s first “million-dollar theater.”
“The acoustics in the State Theater were fantastic,” Mall said. “I used to go up and sit in the back . . . the sound was so good.”
When UPMC came to town around 1998, Lee Auxiliary disbanded and the concert series disappeared.
“I missed it,” said Mall, whose own experience playing music included learning the clarinet, saxophone and keyboard as a child. “There was no chamber music in town. There was some rock ‘n’ roll and polka . . . there’s always polka.”
Mall defines chamber music as “music in a small space.” And that’s exactly what he loves about it.
“It’s very intimate,” he said. “You’re really in touch with each instrument. If you go to a chamber music concert, you hear each player as an individual. (Composer) Johannes Brahms called chamber music ‘an intimate conversation between four people.’ You hear the voices of the instruments so clearly. It’s really uplifting.”
In 2005, Mall said that he had “a lot of energy” and restarted the series under the name Chamber Music Series of Greater Johnstown. One change he implemented was adding jazz concerts to each season’s lineup.
“The Lee series was all classical types of chamber music, but I put jazz in there,” he said. “Jazz is wonderful. It’s my favorite musical form.”
Before the series could come to fruition, Mall had to find a suitable venue.
“I got help from a colleague, and he recommended that I talk to Bill Williams,” Mall said. “Bill belonged to First Presbyterian Church and the pastor at the time was very eager to have music in his church.”
Mall was delighted to find that the church, located at 309 Lincoln St., offered the perfect space.
“First Presbyterian Church probably has some of the best acoustics in the country,” he said. “Performers would call us and say, ‘We need this kind of amp and this kind of microphone,’ and when they saw the space, they realized they didn’t need any of that.”
Within a year, the Chamber Music Series of Greater Johnstown was up and running. Mall used advertisements, word of mouth and even “comp” tickets to spread the word. He also had support from local businesses, foundations and music-loving individuals.
Mall chose performers in part through a program called PennPat, which existed to help boost the careers of musicians across the state. Every year, he sought to find musicians whose talents seemed to be on a whole other level.
“One of the violinists I booked was a 17-year-old named Ann Fontanella. She was fantastic,” Mall said. “They recorded her playing and she has a video from that concert in Johnstown on her YouTube page. It has (more than) a million hits.”
He said that audiences flocked to First Presbyterian Church. Many people even drove long distances to get there.
Though the season schedule changed from year to year, one thing never wavered: the audiences’ display of appreciation and admiration.
“The Johnstown audience is so appreciative,” Mall said. “Almost everybody gets a standing ovation and a callback.”
Mall has since retired from active involvement with the Johnstown Concert Series (the series was renamed a few years ago), but he said that he’s enjoying this year’s season and he appreciates the board members’ eagerness to keep it going.
“There’s a great lineup this season,” he said. “They’ve done well.”
The series is even prospering: Recent collaborations include a partnership with the Pittsburgh Concert Society, for which they presented selected winners of their conservatory-adjudicated Major Auditions. They are even able to continue offering complimentary tickets to John P. Murtha Neuroscience and Pain Institute
patients who are suffering from chronic pain.
Johnstown Concert Series board member Victoria Czarnek said that Mall put a lot of time and effort into reviving what could have been a lost series.
“It took great vision and organization for him to bring back a popular part of culture in Johnstown,” Czarnek said. “Not only does he appreciate music, but he also has the vision and energy to make things happen. I understand that the series sponsored by Lee Hospital was very popular, and a lot of people were sad to see it end. Dr. Mall is the one who took action and did something about it. We now have several people on our board doing what he used to do by himself when he got started.”
The 2014-2015 concert season is well underway, but four concerts in the series remain.
The next performance features organist, pianist, educator and conductor Ethan Laplaca and is scheduled to take place Nov. 22 beginning at 7:30 p.m. at First Presbyterian Church.
“I think people will be pleasantly surprised that they don’t have to know anything about classical music to enjoy one of our concerts,” Czarnek said. “We ask the musicians to prepare a 90- minute program of familiar and/or hummable melodies and encourage them to interact with the audience by telling stories about the pieces being played or their composers.
“Something new this year is the ‘meet-the-artist’ reception that will follow every concert. Not only does it give the audience a chance to meet the artist, but it also gives the audience a chance to meet each other and unwind. Our new post-concert receptions wrap up a lovely and inexpensive way to spend a Saturday evening.”
Czarnek added that many concert attendees have stated that they’re grateful to not have to drive to Pittsburgh or other cities to hear high-quality chamber music.
“People like the convenience of hearing really excellent music without having to drive to Pittsburgh,” said Czarnek, who got involved with the series in 2006. “We have had many excellent musicians pass through town.”
Mall said that he’s glad that others appreciate what good can come from sitting down and listening to music.
“Music soothes the savage beast, including the beasts of pain, anxiety and stress,” Mall said. “I think the series is an incredibly good thing. It’s a beautiful thing. Beautiful things should stay with us.”