The tenth annual Central Pennsylvania Ragtime and American Music Festival convened on September 21-23 at its now regular location, Orbisonia and Rockhill Furnace. I know—that’s two locations, but these small towns adjoin each other, and each houses one event venue. The Presbyterian Church in Orby is where all concerts are held, but the Trolley Museum (which is worth a visit for the trolleys as well) in Rockhill is the site of the two meals that are part of the weekend package, and the Friday night jam at festival director David Brightbill’s B&B, located across from the museum and, not coincidentally, called the Iron Rail.
According to David, attendance was up a little from last year, always a favorable sign. The roster of performers changes little year-to-year: pianists Richard Dowling, Frederick Hodges, Brian Holland, Adam Swanson, and Bryan Wright; drummer Danny Coots; and pianist-singer-emcee Domingo Mancuello. Missing this year were Daniel Souvigny, who is now a student at Berklee Music School in Boston, and Bryan’s wife Yuko, who was in Japan on family business. Domingo returned after a work-related absence of several years; he is a production assistant and stage manager at the historic (1852) Fulton Theater in Lancaster, so he often works weekends.
Despite a mostly constant roster of performers, the program does not repeat the same themes every year, helping keep it fresh. In keeping with that characteristic, “Maple Leaf Rag” was played only once the entire weekend, by Bryan Wright with Danny on drums, and then it was in F, not its usual key.
If you’re a regular reader of this column, you may recall that I did not review last year’s festival, since I could only attend on Saturday. In my November 2016 write-up, I only laid out the festival’s format, not paying specific note to any individual event. That was intentional, to whet your appetite to add this festival to your future music travels.
Friday evening’s concert included three silent movies: Laurel and Hardy’s Their Purple Moment, accompanied by Frederick, and two 10-minute shorts starring Baby Peggy, formally known as Diana Serra Cary, who turned 100 on October 29. She is the last living child silent movie star. These shorts were accompanied by Adam. In all cases, the music was more noteworthy than the movie.
Saturday morning often features a panel discussion on some aspect of music of the period. This time the musicians mostly asked questions of each other, but audience questions were also allowed. One question that got extensive airing was “what emotions do you feel from different compositions?” The answers also morphed into colors that the musicians see in what they play. For example, Brian Holland said that Eb says blue, G is brown. Adam replied that he doesn’t see colors at all in music. It’s not just colors that musicians see in their, and others’, playing. Some see structures, touches, and textures.
Saturday afternoon and evening concerts allowed everyone to play two or three tunes. Danny accompanied others besides his regular partner Brian. Domingo contributed a few vocals. Richard is currently performing works by New Orleans composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk in concerts, so we were treated to some of those.
One fact that was brought out over the weekend was that more rags have been written in our times than in what is thought of as the ragtime era. Several by contemporary composers such as Tom Shea, Vincent Johnson, and Tom Bryer were played, among them Shea’s “Corn Cracker Rag” and the emotion-provoking “Roberto Clemente,” written by David Thomas Roberts to honor the sacrifice of the baseball star who was killed in a plane crash while on a humanitarian mission in the off-season.
After the evening concert, accordionist Harry Traxler from Ohio provided music and lyrics sheets for a sing-along during a trolley ride. He said he managed to hang on to his 40-pound instrument despite lurchings by the car. This is the first time I recall seeing Harry at the festival, though he has been there before.
Sunday morning always features a ragtime-themed service at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Mount Union, 10 miles from Orbisonia. David Brightbill is the organist there. I did not go, but those who did raved about the performances by Richard of “Fantasy on Home Sweet Home” by Gottschalk and the “Wizard of Oz Fantasy” by Frederick. Fortunately, both got reprises during the Sunday afternoon concert. I prefer to seek spiritual renewal from the seat of my bicycle rather than in a seat at a house of worship, so that’s what I did Sunday morning.
The Presbyterian church has a small organ in addition to a baby grand piano and the loan of David Brightbill’s spinet. The finale Sunday afternoon brought all three into play, plus Danny’s drums. Brian Holland tended the organ. During this session tribute was paid to Mike Raditz, a long-time regular at the festival, who had died over the winter. He was known for his many YouTube videos shot here and elsewhere.
This festival, because of its location, cannot grow very much, but this allows it to retain its intimacy, both for the audience as well as the musicians. That said, there is room for a larger audience than what attends most of the sessions. It does not appear that many local residents are among them. Concerts and meals can be purchased individually as well as a package. An all-festival pass at $150 represents a 25 percent discount from the individual prices.
The dates for next year’s festival haven’t been announced; they depend on Penn State’s football schedule because when the Nittany Lions are home, virtually all hotels within at least 50 miles of State College are filled, and if any rooms are available, they fetch extremely high prices.
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.