I write this report with some trepidation, hoping that it will not spoil a good thing.
The Central Pennsylvania Ragtime and American Music Festival has for the past seven years brought some of America’s best pianists to two small isolated towns that are strained to accommodate them. Except for one B&B, the nearest lodging is 15 miles away, restaurants are limited to Subway and a pizza joint, and there are few other businesses. The library is only open three days a week. I could make a joke that the town is so small that the Baskin Robbins only has three flavors, but there’s no Baskin Robbins. How, or why, you might ask, could a festival survive here?
The answer is David Brightbill. David, whose day job is office manager at a water-sewer authority, is a ragtime fan who discovered Adam Swanson, then still in his teens, on YouTube. He conceived the idea of bringing Adam to the area, whose economy depends heavily on tourism. David and his wife Cindy also run the town’s only B&B, so this could help their business. Adam led David to other musicians and the festival was born. Until this year, the words “and American Music” did not appear in its name. The addition was made to broaden the appeal. Time will tell if that works.
I asked David if he had considered moving to a larger venue. He has, but said the musicians love the present location for its intimacy with the audience. The festival events are held at the Orbisonia Presbyterian Church and the Rockhill Trolley Museum in the adjoining boroughs of Orbisonia and Rockhill Furnace, whose combined population is all of 781. The only feasible nearby location is Juniata College in Huntingdon, 20 miles away, but moving there would probably require returning to the original festival date of late June. That date was abandoned two years ago in favor of late September-early October to avoid the summer heat. Neither the church or the museum (which is mostly outdoors) are air-conditioned. On a personal note, I am grateful for the change. Although I’ve been aware of the festival almost since its inception, I had never been able to attend because I was always at my summer place in northern New York State in June.
The roster of performers varies little year to year. The regulars are Bryan and Yuko Wright, Frederick Hodges, Richard Dowling, and until this year when he moved to California to work on a PhD at UC Davis, Adam Swanson. Brian Holland joined the group last year, and this year two others were added: drummer Danny Coots and the 15-year-old phenom Daniel Souvigny, who also made his debut at the Scott Joplin festival in June. Steve Standiford, who doubles on tuba, was also here this year. Most, if not all, of them are on the card for next year (September 22-24).
One problem incurred with the change of date is a potential conflict with Penn State home football games. When that happens, almost all hotel rooms within 50 miles are filled, and Orbisonia is within the 50-mile radius. In 2017 there will be no conflict, unlike this year.
The festival attendance varies depending on the day, but never exceeds 100 on Saturday, the busiest day and the one with the fullest schedule. While the church can easily accommodate many more than that, the museum cannot. The museum is used mainly for meals, and even a crowd of 50 pretty much taxes the space. The two sites are about half a mile apart.
As with many festivals, ticket sales do not cover all the costs, and donations and sponsorships make up the difference. This festival, like most, has an aging audience, so the organizers are always looking to attract a newer and, hopefully, younger crowd in order to survive.
The festival format is thus: a Friday evening concert, followed by an open house at David’s Iron Rail B&B. There’s an upright piano in his living room, but this year it was used more by attendees than by the musicians. On Saturday morning there’s a workshop at the church on some topic related to ragtime (or now, early American music). Both times that I attended the festival the workshop was led by Bryan Wright, who recently completed his PhD in historical musicology at the University of Pittsburgh. Bryan’s wife, Yuko, also just earned a PhD in ethnomusicology at Pitt. There are afternoon and evening concerts at the church, usually themed. Lunch (a BYO event) and dinner (included in the day’s event fee) are served at the museum. There’s an upright piano on hand but, as occurred on Friday evening, it got more action from the attendees than from the musicians. But musicians have to eat, too.
Sunday features a musical church service, usually at a Lutheran church in Mt. Union, 11 miles to the north, where David Brightbill is the regular organist. Lunch at the museum follows (again, included in the day’s fee) along with the afternoon musicale at the church. The latter is usually a light-hearted event with a skit performed by the musicians. This year’s skit was a take-off on Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
The Presbyterian church is fortunate to own a Weber baby grand, and David’s own spinet lives there, too. This allows for the occasional duet.
David and his assistant Lawrence Biemiller have built the festival into a first-class event with a core of dedicated attendees. As mentioned, it’s constrained only by the limited lodging in the area. Nearby camping facilities are also limited. There is a popular lake and state park near Huntingdon, but it is often full on weekends. So if you plan to go next year, book your room(s) early. The festival has a website www.rockhillragtime.org and a Facebook page where you can view photos from this year’s and previous festivals.
Jazz Travels columnist Bill Hoffman is a retired management consultant and is the concert booker for the Tri-State Jazz Society in greater Philadelphia. Bill lives in Lancaster, PA.
For Online Only Access without delivery of the print paper sign up below.
If you'd like the PRINT EDITION, (12 monthly issues) use the following PayPal link. After your payment is complete you will be allowed to create an online account. You will receive the next mailed copy, usually shipping around the 22nd of the month. See a PDF Sample Here.