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Music Fulfills the Beauty of Sitka, Alaska

Cellist Armen Ksajikian and the dancing bears! "I played Berlioz for the bears," Ksajikian said. He gave a "private" recital to the orphaned bears at the Fortress of the Bear, Sitka, Alaska, from a seat above an abandoned clarifier tank once operated by the Alaska Pulp Corp.--photo provided by the Daily Sitka Sentinel, photo by James Poulson


Sitka, Alaska is a special place. Surrounded by soaring mountain peaks and heavy forestation, the town of some 8,000 braces itself for the daily onslaught of cruise ship passengers that can add as many as 3,000 people to the small town during the summer and fall months—sort of like Catalina Island. But, after they depart, many of the folk of Sitka, plus out-of-towners like my wife and I who visited all last week, settled down for the exceptional talents of musicians who have come to perform in the Sitka Summer Music Festival, a three-week affair held during the month of June.
This year, the Festival, begun in 1972 by violinist Paul Rosenthal (who serves as Festival Artistic Director), tendered invitations to cellists Zuill Bailey, Eugene Osadchy and Armen Ksajikian; violinist Fredericke Saeijs; violists Marcus Thompson and Pamela Goldsmith; and pianists Jerome Lowenthal and Ursula Oppens to join him in concerts held at Harrigan Centennial Hall and in smaller, more casual concerts at a café, a church and aboard a boat.

Sitka, Alaska from atop Castle Hill

PIcture windows behind musicians at Harrigan Centennial Hall provide a sweeping view of the bay, often with a bald eagle soaring.

A handler at the Alaska Raptor Center in Sitka keeps an eagle-eye on her bird. Sitka is home to as many as 25,000 bald eagles.

Between Tuesday night and Saturday night I attended the five music presentations of the week to hear as wide (wild?) a diversified program as could be imagined. We heard the music of Peter Schickele, Eugene Ysaye, Alexander Borodin, Felix Mendelssohn, Francis Poulenc, Anton Arensky, Frederick Chopin, Robert Schumann, Gabriel Fauré and Johann Sebastian Bach.
The Tuesday concert opened with cellists Bailey, Ksajikian and Osadchy performing Peter Schickele’s 2007 work “Three Cellos”. This composition was commissioned by our Pacific Serenades and was premiered at Neighborhood Church in Pasadena with Ksajikian joined by David Speltz and Brook Speltz at that concert. Here, while Ksajikian was comfortable, Bailey and Osadchy struggled with the contemporary take. But when in familiar territory, all participating musicians were tops throughout the week. Other numbers on the Tuesday night program was Saeji performing Ysaye’s Violin Sonata in D-minor, Borodin’s String Sextet in D-minor in an attractive rendition by Saeijs, Rosenthal, Goldsmith, Thompson and Osadchy and Ksajikian; and concluding with Lowenthal and Oppens playing two four-hand—or piano duet pieces, one by Mendelssohn, the other by Poulenc.
Ensemble work in Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E-flat major, heard at the Friday night concert at Harrigan Hall with Saeji, Goldsmith, Osadchy and Oppens, explored all the intricate themes with compassion. Pamela Goldsmith was the other local-to-San Gabriel Valley musician performing at the Festival: she is the principal violist with the Pasadena Symphony.
The Festival offers free concerts. Two were presented, one Wednesday night at the small Larkspur Café, the other Friday at the Sitka Church of the Nazarene. Zuill Bailey, whose CD of Bach Cello Suites is now No. 1 on the Billboard charts, was crammed into a corner of the Larkspur Café—these concerts all draw goodly-sized and eager crowds—as he ran a Bach Prelude tutorial on the Prelude No. 1 in G-major. Bailey is now Associate Director of the Festival and is to take the reins as Artistic Director from Rosenthal in 2012. He will be splendid in the role given his easy-going manner of explaining the music. It doesn’t hurt, either, that he is a major talent. The smallish café produced unusual acoustics. As Bailey noted to the crowd, “The room is so live, I could feel the cello vibrating.” At the Church of the Nazarene Oppens, Lowenthal, and Saejis were heard in works by Mozart, Mendelssohn and Fauré in what is called a Brown Bag Concert. The café attracted a young crowd that sipped wine or drank beer and ordered food. The church sanctuary was populated by many families with youngsters and others who brought their lunches with them. All of the concert venues and many hotels and B&Bs are in the downtown area within easy walking distance.

Zuill Bailey plays Bach Cello Suites aboard a dinner cruise in Sitka's bay.

The last evening of the week was a sold-out fund-raiser on Saturday night aboard Allen Marine’s St. Michael that offered a Haydn string quartet performed by Saeji, Rosenthal, Thompson and Ksajikian and more Bach from Zuill Bailey. There was the music, the catered salmon dinner, the wine, and the looming mountains, but an eagle spreading his wings, soaring past the boat, made the Sitka Summer Music Festival something quite special.

By Bill Peters

Photos, except “dancing Bears” by Bill Peters

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