How did a poor farm boy, longtime pediatrician, and master gardener get to be the No. 1 cheerleader for the Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival?
“It’s simple,” says Ed Comer, MD. “My mother made me take piano lessons when I was little, even though we could hardly afford it.” He has been hooked on classical music ever since. When he and his wife Cathy were filling 10 buckets with cut-flowers at their farm on a recent morning, the music of Chopin, his favorite composer, serenaded them. “Chopin was known as the poet of the piano,” he says.
Comer will preside over his first Bach Festival as board president when the event is held for the 21st time June 9-16 in Harrisonburg, Va. For the first 20 years of the festival, the board president was Nelson Showalter, a local pharmacist.
“A lot of people in our area have no idea what an outstanding festival we put on right here in Harrisonburg,” says Comer. “We attract top musicians from all over the country, and they keep coming back.” He knows first-hand how the Shenandoah Valley festival stands out. Earlier this year Comer attended a similar festival in a bigger city with a bigger budget. “The quality of our music is better,” he says.
The driving force, Comer says, is Kenneth J. Nafziger, founder of the festival and its longtime artistic director and conductor. The annual event is sponsored by Eastern Mennonite University, where Nafziger is a music professor.
Comer also credits Mary Kay Adams, an EMU music professor who is executive director of the festival. “She and the board take care of the business side of the festival so that Ken can concentrate on the music side,” he says.
The 12-member board is a working board, he adds. The other day Comer and two other board members were seen passing out promotional brochures at Harrisonburg’s downtown farmers market. Board members also solicit donations from individuals and businesses. “Music festivals like this can never pay for themselves with ticket sales,” Comer says.
One way the Harrisonburg event saves money and promotes the feeling of family is that board members and others host the out-of-town musicians in their homes. Last year the Comers hosted two members of the festival orchestra − violinist Ralph Allen of New York and trombonist Ron Baedke of Richmond. The Valley’s Bach Festival tries to make its music accessible to a wide variety of people by holding noon concerts in downtown churches, with entry by donation. In recent years the venue has been historic Asbury United Methodist Church.
After the concerts, some of the participants cross the street to the Hardesty-Higgins House, where they can get something to eat or browse the visitors’ center. Previously they could buy a “Bach’s Lunch” at Mrs. Hardestry’s Tea House. Taking the place of the tea house since last December is New Leaf Pastry Kitchen.
Watching the festival-goers crossing the street from her second-floor office in Hardesty-Higgins, the director of Tourism and Visitor Services, Brenda Black, feels proud that Harrisonburg is able to offer popular music events ranging from this high-brow classical festival to folksy bluegrass events where participants gather at campsites.
This spring Ed and Cathy, who operate a cut-flower business that serves local florists, hosted a garden party for the new Bach Guild, which includes people who give $1,500 or more each year for the festival.
At 75, Comer is retired from his practice as a children’s doctor. For nearly 40 years he worked in a group practice that is now known as Harrisonburg Pediatrics. But he will never retire from music. In fact, five years ago he returned to piano lessons. Now he studies with Sharon Bloomquist, a longtime piano teacher and performer and now a member of the Bach Festival board.