Stuyvesant Alumnus James Blachly (’98) Wins a Grammy Award

Stuyvesant alumnus James Blachly (’98) won a Grammy award in Best Classical Solo Vocal Album for his recording of “The Prison.”

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By Pulindu Weerasekara

In the 2021 Grammy Awards Ceremony, Stuyvesant alumnus James Blachly (’98), along with the Experiential Orchestra, an orchestra that he founded, and vocal soloists Dashon Burton and Sarah Brailey, won a Grammy Award in the Best Classical Solo Vocal Album category for his recording of Dame Ethel Smyth’s “The Prison.” Dame Ethel Smyth was an English suffragette and women’s rights activist who composed “The Prison,” her last large-scale work, in 1930. Blachly and his team’s recording released the recording on August 7, 2020, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

Blachly serves as the Music Director to the Johnstown Symphony Orchestra, the Geneva Light Opera, and the Experiential Orchestra. He is considered a unique musician by many modern critics and the Experimental Orchestra was a widely-acclaimed step in bringing classical music to the forefront of modern arts and entertainment. His conducting was hailed as “artistic and articulate” by The Virginia Gazette and “admirable” by The New York Times.

The Experiential Orchestra first performed for “loft parties” in 2009, where the audience danced and interacted with the members of the orchestra in a midtown loft next to the orchestra. Blachly held Rite of Spring Dance parties, where the rooms resembled a modern Midsomer celebration and audiences danced to the Stravinsky classic. According to the Experiential Orchestra website, Blachly said, “My sense is that in this age of technology and speed, we crave full-body experiences that sweep us up and where we are invited to hold nothing back. I've always said there is no bigger experience in sound than a live symphony orchestra, and I want to open up that experience for new audiences and have them fall in love with the music on their own terms and through their own joy and wonder and awe.”

Blachly felt elated to have received the Grammy and emphasized his experience in creating the album. “I will admit [the win] was euphoric at first, but what I believe is more important than a week of fame is the years and years of work and enjoyment that went into recording this piece, and that’s what is really important,” he said. “I won’t lie, a Grammy is very important to a previously mostly unknown musician, but it’s not necessarily something that is earth-shattering.”

He recorded “The Prison” with his orchestra, in collaboration with soloists Brailey and Burton, a soprano and a bass-baritone, respectively, as well as Grammy-award-winning producer Blanton Alspaugh. As conductor, Blachly played a significant role in keeping the ensemble together during the recording process. “Everyone looks to me for cues and it’s my job to lead them,” he said.

Blachly enjoyed working with the piece for multiple years before the final recording was released. “At the very first downbeat of the first rehearsal, I got shivers up and down my spine and it was like being in the grips of a powerful force, an inner drive that led me to create a performance edition of the work, and ultimately to this recording,” he said. “That journey has taken four years, from that first performance of excerpts in 2016 to the US Premieres in 2018, to the recording in 2019 and its release in 2020.”

He reflected on his experience in Stuyvesant in relation to his passion for music. “I’ve been a musician for most of my life. It was at Stuyvesant that this started. I was a violinist, and later took up the double bass,” he said. “Stuy taught me that good things come from hard work and that’s important to remember.”

Through music, Blachly found his passion for working with an orchestra and decided to pursue conducting professionally. “It came to a point where I couldn’t imagine my life without music. I started creating my own music in the latter years of high school, and then I just thought that I wanted to be a part of everything that an orchestra has to offer, which is why I decided on being a conductor,” he said. “I can safely tell you that I am very happy that I chose this profession, and it has brought me countless hours of joy and pleasure.”

Former Stuyvesant Assistant Principal of the English Department Steven Shapiro also recognized Blachly’s high school musical experience. “During his time [at Stuyvesant], he applied for the Bertelsmann Fellowship. It was a competition in those days,” he said. “He wrote an original piece of music that he composed called ‘Passacaglia’ and he won a $10,000 award, which was really a wonderful achievement for him. And that was back in 1994.”

Blachly’s Grammy award received a positive reception from many Stuyvesant students. “I'm [...] proud that James Blachly won a Grammy award. It comes to show that Stuyvesant can be a school for everyone, not just the stereotypical STEM school a lot of people see it as,” freshman Henry Ji said in an e-mail interview. “He's similar in a lot of ways to Theolenous Monk because they both attended Stuy but became musicians later on in their lives [and] decided to focus on something other than Stuy's traditional strengths.”

Shapiro agreed, believing that Blachly’s success demonstrates the diverse talents of Stuyvesant students. “When I first came to [Stuyvesant] in 1987, I felt that English and the humanities as a whole had been given [the] short [end of the stick]. The kids at Stuyvesant are bright, they’re bright across the board, and not just bright in math and the sciences,” he said. “James, of course, was a very bright student [...] but he was also extremely talented in music. I’m so glad that he was able to work on his talent and music at school, even in a math-science high school.”

Above all, Blachly emphasized the importance of truly pursuing a passion rather than fame or money. “Fame is a ruinous ambition because everything falls out of fame eventually. [...] As a person, you should focus on what you love,” he said. “Many of my peers and the adults around me, including my parents, told me that I wouldn’t make it as a musician, and while I’m not filthy rich, the joy I get from doing my job is wealth enough.”