The blast furnaces of Bethlehem Steel have been silent for more than a decade, but soon the mills will be alive with the sound of music. Elisabeth von Trapp, granddaughter of the legendary Maria and Baron von Trapp, whose lives inspired the stage musical and 1965 film "The Sound of Music," performs at the Musikfest Cafe at SteelStacks for lunch and dinner concerts featuring holiday classics and some of the legendary songs.
Accompanied by pianist Douglas Major, Von Trapp will sing and play popular Broadway show tunes, wintertime favorites, beloved Christmas classics and some "Sound of Music" tunes. Her vocal style? Think Judy Collins, equally at home with English or German.
For Von Trapp, the sounds of music are part of her earliest memories. Born and raised in Vermont, and inspired by her father Werner von Trapp's guitar-playing and singing, she carries on the legacy of the internationally renowned Trapp Family Singers. Singing since age 3, Von Trapp was playing guitar and traveling the back roads of New England by the time she was 16, performing with her siblings at weddings, gospel meetings and town halls.
"The Sound of Music" was loosely based on the 1949 memoirs of Von Trapp's grandmother Maria, who came to the Trapp family in 1926 as a tutor for one of Baron von Trapp's 10 children. She began teaching the children music and married the baron the following year. In 1935 the family choir, later to be known as the Trapp Family Singers, made its European debut. The family escaped from Nazi-occupied Austria in 1938 and arrived in the United States in 1939, eventually settling in Stowe, Vt., in 1941.
Although a former steel plant isn't exactly a traditional holiday performance venue, the hills of Pennsylvania came alive with the sound of the Trapp Family Singers' voices even before they moved to Stowe.
"For a while, my family lived in Merion, Pennsylvania, just before they moved to Vermont," Von Trapp says. "That was the beginning of their singing career, and how they made a living in this country. So it's great to return to Pennsylvania, since my family's livelihood was determined here. By performing in places where they had been, it's like getting to know what their life was like."
And other von Trapps have performed in the Lehigh Valley. ArtsQuest brought her neices and nephews, who go by The Von Trapp Children, to town for five years to perform at Musikfest and as part of its holiday offerings in 2002-2006. The children are the children of her brother Stefan and live in Montana. Elisabeth von Trapp's concerts are also part of ArtsQuest's holiday programming.
Von Trapp was just 3 years old when she realized the important role the von Trapp family played in many people's lives. "One of my earliest childhood memories was singing 'Silent Night' with my family in a church in Reading. I was thinking about how odd it was to be singing this song, which I had sung with my father in our living room at home, in front of all these people. That was my first inkling that this was a very unique experience."
When she was 5, von Trapp saw a stage production of the "Sound of Music" for the first time. "I did realize my father was the character Kurt [the youngest boy], and I understood it was about my grandfather, whom I never met, and my grandmother, but for a 5-year-old, the storyline was hard to follow. What I really remember was how my grandmother got up at the end of the show and took a bow, and everyone gave her a standing ovation," she says.
Von Trapp also recalls accompanying her father to see the 1965 Hollywood film version of the play, starring Christopher Plummer as her grandfather and Julie Andrews as her grandmother. Andrews, all sweetness and light in the film, was not exactly cast in the same mold as the real Maria von Trapp.
"My grandmother, like so many highly-driven and creative people, was not above being formidable when she believed in an opinion or a cause, and could be unpredictable," von Trapp says. "She could be hard-driving and sometimes austere. But she was a remarkably courageous woman. We called her 'mutta' for mother, even though she was our grandmother."
The family was disappointed that the film drafted the von Trapp saga in such a tight time span, rather than the full story as portrayed in the hit 1956 West German film "The Trapp Family," and its 1959 sequel. "I remember as a child watching those two movies with my siblings. My grandmother would set up a projector and show them to guests. I grew up with those films -- they were so much more authentic," von Trapp says.
Still, von Trapp has nothing but respect and appreciation for the Hollywood film. "It's a beautiful story about a singing Austrian family and their dramatic departure from Austria. But even more, it's about a family faced with challenges that they overcome through love and forbearance," she says. "Everyone wants to know that they turn out all right."
Perhaps that's the reason why "The Sound of Music," which has nothing directly to do with Christmas, was set mostly during the summer, and contains not a single song the real Trapp Family performed in concert, is so often considered a favorite Christmas movie. "In a holiday song, there's always a focus, in a gentle way -- maybe secular, maybe sacred, sometimes commercial -- that says if you believe, and your faith is strong, you will arrive, you will get there," von Trapp says.
For von Trapp, Christmas songs in particular help define a sense of being in the embrace of a wonderfully loving, family-oriented holiday of giving and togetherness. "Many Austrian carols are like fairy tales, with beautiful imagery and mythical stories," she says. "I think they evoke that inner sense of belonging to the season. Sometimes, I'll be in the middle of a song -- it could be in the middle of a phrase or a note -- and I'll realize that this is my Christmas moment. That's something I learned from my father, how music can help define a moment and underscore a holiday or celebration."
Christmas music was highly important to the Trapp Family Singers. "Probably their most powerful performances were their Christmas concerts," von Trapp says. "One woman once came up to me after a concert and told me about her father who had lived in a Germanic community in the United States during the war years, people who felt alienated and cut-off. He went to a Trapp Family Christmas concert, where he heard my relatives talk about their Austrian heritage, and give voice and beauty to that way of life. The audience became unified in spirit and proud of who they were, even in those war years. When they sang 'Silent Night' in German, there wasn't a dry eye in the entire theater."
"Silent Night" might draw a tear, but it takes "Ave Maria" to silence a jackhammer. That happened a few years ago, when von Trapp sang in a street performance program called "Music Under New York," a free music series sponsored by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority at several dozen stations.
Says von Trapp, "I was singing at Grand Central Station, and they were doing some work on the street, with all this jackhammer noise. While I was singing 'Ave Maria,' the noise suddenly stopped. I thought they were just done for the day, but then this foreman, all covered with dust, came over and asked to see the woman who was singing. He had told all his workers to shut off their tools when he heard that song."
ELISABETH VON TRAPP
*What: The granddaughter of Maria and Baron von Trapp of "The Sound of Music" fame sings a holiday show.
*When: 3 p.m. Thursday, followed by dinner; 11 a.m. Friday and Nov. 19, followed by lunch; 2 p.m. Nov. 19, with lunch at noon
*Where: Musikfest Cafe, ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks, 101 Founders Way, Bethlehem; lunch for noon Nov. 19 concert is in Fowler Blast Furnace Room
*What else: Concerts help kick off ArtsQuest's holiday programming at SteelStacks, which begins Nov. 17 with the opening of Christkindlmarkt and a lighting ceremony at 7 p.m.
*Info: 610-332-3378, www.artsquest.org