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Thanks for a Great Gathering

There’s always a sense of relief in returning home after any trip, as we reacquaint ourselves with pets, bed, and sofa, and catch up on snail mail, email, and Game of Thrones.  We can’t help but notice all the little reminders that there has been a time gap in our familiar routine that was taken up by some signal event worth leaving it behind; vacation, travel, holiday family gathering or, in this instance, a “family” gathering of a special sort—Mt. Laurel.  Despite following such a significant milestone as last year’s event, I thought this Gathering exhibited its usual high level of entertainment, excitement, accommodation, innovation, and just plain fun.  A quick perusal of critique sheets, now being tabulated, revealed attendees shared that impression, with the very first one I read gushing, “Best Mt. Laurel ever!”  That’s a high bar to clear but I’ll happily go on point out some noteworthy aspects for your consideration.

No festival report would be complete without a remark on the weather, good or bad.  Happily, the usual summer showers were concentrated in one, drenching, downpour during Thursday’s dinner hour, with dry conditions and balmy temperatures in its wake.  No news was definitely good news, this year.  The jamming in the campground went unimpeded and almost without end.

I must say my own perspective on the 26th annual Mt. Laurel Autoharp Gathering was experienced through different eyes in my role as the new Festival Director.  There were repeated moments of brief puzzlement as I wondered, “Why are all these people coming to me for an answer?”  The reality took a little while to sink in.  Neal Walters tactfully let me find my own way.  Thanks, Neal!



Fortunately, I am supported by the most imaginative, responsible, self-starting, and hard-working board of directors one could ask for, as well as a constellation of supplementing volunteers to fill in with essential, specific needs.  I left feeling that they made my contribution to the enormous undertaking that is Mt. Laurel easiest of all.  So, more than a tip of the hat, rather a deep and grateful bow to Board Members and spouses (who, in the nature of things and their own selflessness, often become automatic staff members)—Tom Fladmark, Kathie Hollandsworth, Niels Jonker (and Holly Towne!), Jim Adams, Neal Walters, Coleen Walters, Warren (and Ann!) Fisher, Frank (and Marion!) Baker, George Orthey, Greg (and Deb!) Schreiber, Rick (and Erina!) Fitzgerald, Maggie Dodd, George Orthey (Emeritus), (and my own, Shirley Averett!).  These are the core people whose yearlong efforts create the magic that occurs for one week, every June.  You can look up the board areas of individual responsibility on the Mt. Laurel website.  Thank you one and all!

We, also, owe thanks to volunteer Lynda Cohen, assisted by Maureen Maxwell, who conducted a search and vetted a replacement for long-time caterer Robyn Green, who retired last year, and thanks to Pam Ellis, who relieved Coleen of the pre-Gathering Workshops registration duties and will do the same for next year.  We very much appreciate your stepping up to help.

So, happily, the changeover in directorship was a total non-event.  So, what was the news?




Well, as mentioned, above, we immediately panicked when our caterer, Robyn, let us know last year that she was leaving.  However, as you who were present this year know, all turned out well as our new caterer, Laurie Berard of Townside Café & Catering could not have been more accommodating.  From menu to preparation to setup to serving to clean up, things could not have gone better.  The food was a hit, on time, and the service staff unobtrusive and efficient.  As well, Laurie supplied the delicious, homemade pies for us to sell at concert breaks.  We are definitely looking forward to her return next year.  Thank you, Laurie!



Starting off the festival proper with the Board Members’ Wednesday Concert, everyone (and especially the board members) considered that it was the best production yet.  And better still, so far as we know, it marked the first ever autoharp festival to go live stream on the interweb!  A hundred or so viewers watched and listened to it live as it happened, right along with those in the hall.  This is a tremendous step forward in extending the benefits and enjoyment of the Gathering to autoharp players around the world, who are prevented by distance or events from actually being present.  With the performers’ kind consent, all concerts, the contest, and Cory Goodrich’s release workshop went out live, either for free or for a modest few dollars.  Many were so thrilled and excited they chose to make donations via the “Tips” link, and our thanks goes to them.  (Thanks, tippers!)  All reports are that it was a remarkably professional airing.  Full credit should go to Niels Jonker, internet genius, who sprang the news of the capability on us, even as we unpacked, following a year or so of discussion, with the board musing, “Maybe someday…”  Well, that day is here.

For those who missed the Gathering and the live stream, there is a possibility it might be posted to our You Tube site at some future date but that assumes pending You Tube legal blessing and our determination of a “decent interval”.

Moving on to the headlining cast, we were treated to some stellar stage performances.  Lucille Reilly was featured as last year’s contest champion and demonstrated why she is a multi-time autoharp and hammered dulcimer winner.  Lindsay Haisley brought his chromatic charm and sentimental favorites, capably accompanied by Cheryl DeHut on harmonies.  Her clogging board was left aside as Cheryl, unfortunately, had a leg in a cast but, perched as she was on a stool, she could at least have tapped her good foot. ;^)  I certainly cannot say it slowed her down, as she was often to be seen speeding and weaving around the Rec Hall on a kneel-down scooter.  We ought to have issued her a bicycle bell!

Mike Herr delighted with beautiful instrumentals, wonderfully assisted by Cindy Harris, Scotty Scott and Jill Smith.  Winfield Champion, Ann Norris, was a happy surprise to many on the East coast not familiar with her talents, which included not only a chromatic and vocal facility with mid-century favorites but a honeyed Texas charm that was simply irresistible.  The Goodhues Band played to rave applause in their sets.  Kim has long been a fixture in Mt. Laurel contests and open stage.  Little did we realize that he had assembled such an entertaining musical ensemble of family and friends.

For a few years, now, Tom Fladmark, in our considering of possible performers, had mentioned his acquaintance with Tom Chapin.  This year it finally happened and we were able to schedule him for a day and a night.  Now, Tom Chapin will admit autoharp is his third instrument and, though it was given a healthy representation, his true gifts lay in his songwriting, charisma, and ability to connect with the audience.  His sets alternately entertained us and joined us in the entertainment.  In one Y-M-C-A-like instance, he taught us the American sign language version of “We Are a Family”.  We sang the chorus and gesticulated enthusiastically if not quite with full coordination; all great fun, like being the happily-lost newbie at a contra dance.

If one might wonder whether his onstage friendliness, charm, and ease was genuine, I can tell you that he rushed off stage at the end of the show, not to autograph and push CD’s, but to be first at the door to shake hands and say thank you and goodbye, individually, to each person leaving the building, taking time to make a personal connection with all.  Such was his persona back stage, as well.  I had previously only seen him from afar on the Winfield stages.  It was a real treat to enjoy and get to know him, close up, in the intimate setting of Mt. Laurel.

Of course, the irreplaceable Ivan Stiles was on hand to treat us to his incomparable emceeing skills; he, a specimen of sartorial splendor if ever there was one, alternately dazzling and startling with his choice of raiment.  How appropriate that he has a little of the peacock in him.

It was also another great year for the Mt. Laurel contest.  Eighteen entrants threw their hat in the ring for another memorable night of exceptional play.  Everyone had their list of candidates as finalists but, when it was announced, it was George Haig, Cindy Harris, Les Gustafson-Zook, Ricky Levitan, and Harvey Wagner who had edged out the others.  I’m sure it was close scoring in the final round, as well, but, when the marks were in, it was George (selected a Greg Schreiber harp) in First, Les ( Pete d’Aigle harp) in Second, and Harvey (Tom Fladmark harp) Third.  Harvey, you may not know, is a lap-style player and, for all you wannabes out there, proof that hard work, perseverance, and focus can succeed against better-known names.



We're planning on issuing a contest CD set again for $25 and it should be available in August.  Coleen will send a separate message with ordering details.

The 2015 Cohen-Grappel Autoharp Recording Endowment winner, Cory Goodrich, gave an absolutely knockout performance in a new, dedicated workshop slot wherein she not only performed a number of her tracks on her hot-off-the-press CD, On Wings of Love, but was able to discuss the inspiration of their writing, selection, and arrangement as well as her personal background and music progression.  This is definitely an entertaining and well-merited release party change allowing appreciation for the enormous amount of work entailed in such a project.  Actress/singer/performer Cory had only been playing the autoharp for two years, yet her CD release demonstrates that exceptional instrument mastery is not a pre-requisite if you possess a credible overall musical talent and a burning vision.  And, boy, is she (in)credible.  Congratulations, Cory!



Cutting of the delicious, celebratory cakes after Cory’s hour was preceded by the announcement of this year’s endowment winner.  The decision on the award had been made weeks earlier but, in an ironic yet incredibly apropos turn of fate, it turned out to be none other than George Haig, winner of the Mt. Laurel contest just the previous night!  I’ll be looking forward to how the acidly witty and famously brief-of-speech Scot fills his hour next year.

The Hall of Fame inductees proved popular picks.  Lyman “Bud” Taylor of Jazz Harp fame was the posthumous inductee.  His wife, Marian, all of 94 and articulate as could be, recounted his life and milestones and his daughter, Sandy, added a short but emotional note of thanks.  The contemporary inductee was Will Smith, who beamed at his wife, Lulu, there to share his moment, and made a typically modest and brief acceptance speech, certainly shorter than the lengthy accounting of his many achievements in his proclamation.



The Leonard Reid Open Stage Award went to Anne Martin and Ken Ellis.  As well as an accomplished autoharp player and vocalist, Anne is notable as a popular pick as sideman for her excellent guitar playing.  This was a doubly auspicious week for Ken, showcasing his new line of luthier autoharps in the vending area as well as sharing the award.  (If you are the sort who cares about such things, you would find it interesting that he offers a B-style upper bridge.)  All the other Open Stage performers did themselves great credit, as well, showcasing their talents and musical interests for our enjoyment.



The pre-Gathering workshops by Mike Herr, Lindsay Haisley, and Lucille Reilly were well attended and got high marks.  From what I heard, students got some intense tutoring for their day-and-a-half.  Lindsay’s chromatic class organized a large, multi-instrument ensemble and put on quite a performance in Open Stage.  Lynda Cohen organized a special teacher/student/spouse Tuesday luncheon, catered on site (thank you!).  We'll certainly plan to have a slate of the popular pre-Gathering workshops again next year.

Ruby Morgan, of “A Musical Bath for the Soul” notoriety, established a fund some years ago to honor her late sister, Pat Tressler, with a lottery-drawn award going to a qualifying pre-Gathering student, paying the full tuition of their attendance.  Ellen Zellmer won the tuition refund and promptly donated it back for a needier future winner.  This is a generous practice that has occurred the last several years and, though it reflects very favorably on the donors, I swear, we said nothing to encourage it.  There is no discredit in accepting a fairly won benefit.

Once, again, at the appointed hour, His Imperial Magnificence, The Grand Poobah, made His way in stately majesty from the Rec Hall to the top of the hill for the Autoharp Toss and, once again, wondered why the golf cart was not waiting at the door to convey Him in appropriate comfort.  Nevertheless, the magical moment had arrived for His radiant beneficence to extend across the land to the furthest port-a-potty with a grandeur Camelot could only envy.  After appropriate obeisance’s were rendered, the rules were explained and the incontestable authority of The Grand Poobah firmly established.  Twenty-six aspirants joined the roll to try their hand at everlasting fame and valuable baubles.  When the dust had settled, first-time “tosser” Geoff Goodhue was the Men’s Distance medalist at 69’2”.  Emily Herr, also a novice flinger, topped the Women’s division.  In the combined accuracy category, veteran Mike Herr took first place but, notably, niece Emily, one-upped him, garnering a second medal as runner-up.



Well, hard to believe after reading this far, but amongst the all the awards and fine performances, there was, also, time for a full slate of daily workshops.  Cathy Beyer kicked it off with Boot Camp for Beginners and Karen Daniels conducted a daily, early morning Beyond Boot Camp.  Les Gustafson-Zook offered a workshop for the young as young at heart.  Featured performers held multiple workshops and were supplemented by Pete d’Aigle, Dennis Cash, Linda Huber, Drew Smith, and Harvey Wagner on a variety of interesting topics.  Additionally, Ann Fisher and Paul Ranney kicked in with Soap Box workshops, Ann teaching mountain dulcimer and Paul covering songwriting.  Kathie Hollandsworth was key in organizing the cast and offerings of this remarkable schedule.



Slow jams were held in the Rec Hall following evening concerts.  I’d like to express my gratitude for those who led this activity, which is a particular enjoyment for a lot of our attendees.  Those leaders would be Neal and Coleen on Wednesday, John and Heidi on Thursday, Chuck and Karen on Friday, and John and Kathie on Saturday.

Rick Fitzgerald has taken over Vending in the board reorganization and accommodated a full hall of purveyors—Pete d’Aigle, Greg Schreiber, John Hollandsworth, Chuck Daniels, Warren Fisher, Ken Ellis, Drew Smith, George Orthey, Emily Herr, and Maureen Maxwell.  I mentioned new luthier Ken Ellis previously.  Emily was on hand to transfer her painted artistic commissions onto the article of your choice and was constantly busy.  Among a number of other patrons, I got killer paint jobs on my two instrument soft cases and Shirley had an MLAG t-shirt acquired from the Silent Auction altered to read:  “I’ve suffered for my husband’s music, now it’s your turn!”  Maureen is a specialist in healing meditation and reflexology and offered a peaceful, luxuriating escape from the festival hubbub as one lay warmly covered in a relaxing lounger.  Payment was by honor donation, the total of which she handed over at week’s end to benefit the Gathering.  Thank you, Maureen!



Rick also took over another of my former duties—ramrodding of the Rec Hall set up and tear down.  I didn’t exactly throw him to the lions but I’m sure he has a new appreciation for the chaos when the announcement is made, “Okay, one, two, three…go!”  Thanks to all the volunteers who contributed to the common effort and, especially, who listened and attended to what was needed.  A little organization really cuts down on the time and effort required.  Among the volunteers there is a cadre of familiar faces whose regular participation and experience makes things go much smoother.  Thank you, cadre!  To get an idea of the activity, our technical guru, Niels Jonker, produced a time-lapse video from 2014 that is posted on our You Tube site.

Thanks to Erina Fitzgerald, once again, for her unflagging help at the performer sales table.  Shirley Averett helped out across the board as well as manning her MLAG Cruise station (14 more sign-ups for 2017!) and there were many people who worked hard on Wednesday assisting Coleen.  Rick Fitzgerald and Greg Schreiber were our stage managers. Marti Hudak was a reassuring fixture at Hospitality.  Steve Hill handled the concert hall lights. John Dettra worked tirelessly on the sound board during all of the day and evening activities.  I don’t know how he keeps up with it.

Bill Belz provided our sound and stage equipment and his expertise behind the sound board for concert events.  A long-standing supporter and good friend, we rely on his experience and diligence to unburden us of this critical connection between our performers and our audience.  We’d be lost without him.  Thank you, again, Bill!

Al Lumpkin supplied and tended to his sound system for the Workshop Tent, not only constituting a significant savings for the Gathering but making for a truly quality experience for leaders and attendees, alike.  Thank you, Al!

Speaking of the Workshop Tent, construction of the new campground bath house displaced us from our usual hilltop location, which turned out to be a blessing.  It led Hospitality Director Warren Fisher to convince the tent suppliers to bring out their heavy equipment and drill into the bedrock, allowing us to erect the tent in the parking area behind the Rec Hall where we’ve wanted it for years.  Thank you, Warren!

It’s a work in progress but the accessible parking area beside the Rec Hall was reorganized to create more spaces.  Look for that to improve further, as we have a significant need for such parking.  Thank you to whomever is going to draw the chalk lines next year!



The Rec Hall sported a celebrity aura, again, this year, as Holly Towne and Niels Jonker contributed 24” x 36” photo blowups of personalities and scenes from last year’s 25th celebration Gathering.  As well as adding a flair to the hall’s ambiance all week it served as a fundraiser as photo subjects quickly bought up their likenesses out of self-admiration or self-defense.  Thank you, Niels and Holly!

Besides the Rec Hall set up/down, there were many volunteers who stepped into needed roles for registration, pie-and-ice cream and snack items (which concession Mt. Laurel has taken over and was wonderfully coordinated by Deb Schrieber), trash pickup, hall cleanup and reconfigurations, the Autoharp Toss, chauffeuring duties, and numerous other niggling chores that must be tended to keep everyone happy and comfortable.  Thanks to each and every one of you.



Specifically, thanks to Cindy Harris for her inspiration of and continued attention to the Silent Auction and to all her volunteer staff and those who supplied items to fill the tables.  It is surprising how significant a contributor it is to the Gathering’s fundraising and, moreover, how much interest it draws among attendees.  It is not exactly a blood sport but there are some amusingly sharp elbows when it comes down to the final moments for bidding.  One of the most common critique comments is to create more space to get to the bid sheets.  Apparently, there is a perceived fine line between incidental hovering and competitive blocking.  Woe to those eyeing a popular item.  On the other hand, bring your popcorn.  It’s fun to watch!

If you weren’t acknowledged here by name it’s not because it wasn’t merited but because the examples of selflessness were more than I can remember and beyond my ability to show due appreciation.  I can only hope the inner satisfaction you took away with you will suffice and I’ll try to do better next year.

A last nod must go to the Little Buffalo State Park rangers and staffers, headed by Park Director, Jason Baker.  They work hard to create a safe, comfortable facility for our use and allow us use it in the way we see best without interference or intrusion and with the support we need.  In turn, we try our best to honor their trust and reflect upon them in the most favorable light.  Thank you, Ranger Jason!

If you did not leave a feedback form but have comments you would like to relay, feel free to email them to me at this link.  I’ll be happy to add them for our consideration at the next board meeting.  Please make the subject "MLAG Feedback"

I know that many of you took some great photos and a few are included in this message. We'd love to get copies of any other photos that any of you may have for possible use in our website gallery.  Please let our webmaster, Neal Walters, know if you have some pictures you'd like to share and he'll talk you through the best way to do that.

Next year's lineup will include: Charles Whitmer, Jo Ann Smith, Wayne & Artheta Long, Joel Mabus, The Red Mountain Band with Bill Martin on autoharp, and contest winner George Haig.  We know it will be a great lineup and you should all plan to join us for our 27th annual Mountain Laurel Autoharp Gathering.  If circumstances prevent your attendance, there will, again, be live-streaming of the significant performances and we strongly encourage you to tune in and be with us in spirit, leave your comments, and contribute if you wish.

Test question:  Who was the most popular person at the Gathering?  Niels Jonker, who was absolutely everyone’s choice to back them up on stage with his fine bass playing.

In Appreciation,

Gregg Averett
Festival Director, Mt. Laurel Autoharp Gathering
1973 Westwood RD SE
Smyrna, GA 30080






 

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