Nearly every weekend for the last nine years Marcia Johnson, a free-lance writer, and her husband Arnold, a lawyer, have left Washington for their farm in Bedford, Pa. They raised their cows, harvested their crops, and, until last year, zealously guarded their tape recorder. "The area was just starved for culture," Marcia Johnson says. "There was no classical music performed anywhere nearby, and you can't get anything on the radio except country music. You lived by tapes and records."
Not any more. Violinists, sopranos, and a musical director some call "the maestro" now shop in the slightly dusty antique stores of the small town. Guest soloists such as the dancers of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, violinist Cho-Liang Lin, and Van Cliburn competition gold-medalist Andre'-Michel Schub appear each weekend to perform in the middle of what used to be an overgrown field. With last year's creation of the seven-week Bedford Springs Performing Arts Festival, which this summer will run every weekend until Aug. 21, the town's hunger was finally satisfied.
When Jacques Brourman, former Music Director of the Charlotte Symphony and now full-time artistic director of the festival, chose the tiny town as the site for his new summer music festival, the choice, at least on first consideration, seemed less than logical. Only 4,000 people live in Bedford year-round, and their musical tastes tend to run more toward Loretta Lynn than Liszt. But Brourman was looking for a bucolic setting in easy driving distance of several large cities, and with Johnstown and Altoona less than an hour away, and Washington, Pittsburgh or Baltimore less than three hours, Bedford beckoned. The area also offered the Bedford Springs Hotel, a slightly tired 250-room resort founded in 1803, which new owners were in the process of renovating.
"In seven weeks we're bringing a town of several thousand more than a city of half a million would see in a year," says Brourman. His orchestra is composed of professional musicians from symphony orchestras around the country, and the members hold open rehearsals, chamber music concerts and master classes as well as a weekly concert with a guest soloist.
"But we're not after large audiences," Brourman says. "It's an intimate organization. We can expand the tent to seat 1,700 rather than the 1,000 it now seats, but we really don't want to go larger than that. We don't want it to be a rat race, have a factory atmosphere."
Of course, there are some residents who don't feel they've been starved for culture or anything else. "It depends on whose culture you're talking about," says Paul Beamer, a local businessman. "I don't want to classify this as a banjo kind of place, but there's folk dancing, fiddle contests. The people in the festival are being treated to our culture now, too. To really classify as a good festival, in my opinion, they should include that kind of thing."
Whether or not Brourman has any special fascination with fiddle contests, the town of Bedford itself, with its early 19th-century houses and proudly slow-paced existence, convinced him he had reached the end of his three-year search for a festival sight. Bedford is the kind of town where ads for county fair "tractor pulls" compete for restaurant wall space with the winning entries in a "What the American Flag Means to Me" contest; where smiling, church-bound families fill the streets on Sunday mornings; where words like "quaint" and "charming" and "slow-paced" are as popular as the historical plaques that seem to grace almost every other house; and where a quick glance is all locals need to know you're from out of town because you just don't have that relaxed Bedford look.
It's also a town whose economy depends on tourism. People come to the fall foliage festival to see the reconstructed colonial village on the edge of town, to "take the waters" at the mineral springs that gave Bedford Springs Hotel its name. Or they used to come. For the last few years tourism has been down in Bedford County.
"Our county doesn't have a lot to offer," says Mary Miller as she waits to get her hair done at Angeletto's Beauty Center in town. "The festival brings people in."
Baker Paul Shoemaker is certain the festival has helped his business, even if it has drawn some unusual guests to Bedford, like the woman who came into his shop asking for an unadulterated bran muffin. "I do believe that was the first time I ever made a muffin like that," he says, "with no fruit, honey instead of sugar, and whole wheat flour. She had to have it a special way. Oh yes, with that order I knew she was from the festival."
But, as one local antiques merchant says, "The Springs has always been the Springs and Bedford has been Bedford." The people who serve the festival guests are generally more interested in the potential for business than in the festival itself. "People work out at the hotel," a saleswoman at the local 5 & 10 says, "but then they come home. We're working girls, you see, so we don't have time to go to something like that festival. We leave work and we go home to more work."
The lone bran muffin enthusiast was not the only sign that Bedford may be on the brink of a new era. More residents are interested in restoring old Bedford homes, and last year Paul Beamer opened a gourmet food shop, Beamer's Coffee, Tea and Spice Shop, much like the one his aunt owns in Washington's Georgetown. Beamer says locals are getting used to the imported curries and dried tortellini he carries, and Marcia Johnson thinks the shop is "an indication that the town will become a little more trendy, although I hate that word."
But no matter how trendy Bedford becomes, some things don't change. The same gingerbread houses that had crowds lining up in Georgetown last Christmas just sat on the Bedford shelves. "People would come in and stare at them," Beamer's mother, Catherine, says, "but they weren't buying them. They just wanted to see how they were put together so they could go home and make one themselves."
Yet even if Bedford hasn't responded with equal enthusiasm to all the recent additions to town, for many residents, especially local executives and Washingtonians who summer or have retired on farms in the area, the existence of the festival itself is something of a miracle.
"We came into Bedford one day last year," remembers Joseph Cunningham, whose wife Rebecca is a festival vice president responsible for fund raising in the Cumberland, Md., area "and on the field where nothing had been before there was this beautiful tent, as if it had rained the night before and it had sprung up like a mushroom."
Miraculous, watery metaphors are especially popular around Bedford right now, which is not surprising considering a flash flood roared past the festival tent just 10 days before the beginning of this season. The Bedford Springs Hotel, which houses the festival musicians, staff, and much of the out-of-town audience, sustained several million dollars in damage. Bridges were swept away; cars floated out of the parking lot; golf carts littered the lawns; 18 inches of water flowed into and out of the hotel lobby and the water rose across a several-acre field up to the tent. When it reached the tent support pegs, it stopped.
The flood left Bedford Springs a sea of mud and debris, but local residents, hotel staff, and festival enthusiasts managed to clean the place up quickly enough to host a golf tournament only several days later, and the festival opened on time. Another miracle.
Or maybe just another example of the typical Bedford pragmatism. "We had five feet of water outside the house," says Paul Beamer. "We've had 3 to 9 inches on the first floor often. But you don't let it get to you. I tell people if it floods again this year, I'll move. If it floods next year, I'll stay."