Story last updated at 6/11/2014 - 5:48 pm
SITKA - There aren't many times when you can hear a world-class cellist perform, in a small setting, a piece written for his cellist grandfather.
There are few chances to wander into an empty rehearsal hall and hear a world-class pianist practicing a piece by Johannes Brahms.
It may be called the Sitka Summer Music Festival, but the organization, founded more than 40 years ago, brings classical music to all of Alaska throughout the year, and it's expanding its programs to bolster classical music education, opportunities and exposure.
The summer festival runs from May 31 to June 29 in Sitka and includes a music-related movie series, a boat cruise with a concert in a quiet bay, a free "café concert series" on Wednesdays and a free "Bach's lunch" on Thursdays among several other events.
The stage for the formal, evening concerts - and for most rehearsals - is backdropped by mountains across the water, and the occasional eagle or kayak-laden van.
"We try to share music, and diversity of music, in a diversity of environments," said festival executive director Kayla Boettcher. "We take people by the hand and say 'This is an art form ... you should really check this out. It's been around for hundreds of years, and it will be around for hundreds more."
The musicians at the festival, who donate their time to perform, said it's considered quite prestigious to be asked to participate.
Pianist Eduard Zilberkant said he'd been to Sitka for different events with the festival, but this was his first time performing in the summer series.
"It's really a world-renowned event that happens in Alaska," Zilberkant said. "It's always very exciting, because you get ... the world's greatest chamber musicians together here. It really is the sharing of ideas and collaboration, because everybody brings something very new. That's the whole idea of chamber music. That's why it's so wonderful. ... No one person is a soloist, even though each is a master in their own right. ... This is the pinnacle of what chamber music playing is about ... like having an intimate conversation with your best friends."
As an expansion of that intimate conversation, part of the event focuses on getting people more familiar with the works and the people behind them. Each evening, musicians appeared onstage, sans instruments, prior to their performance to discuss what they were to play.
"Every piece of music has a tremendous history behind it," Zilberkant said.
Zilberkant said he didn't know about Gian Carlo Menotti's piece, which was commissioned by Gregor Piatigorsky, the grandfather of cellist and festival performer Evan Drachman, before the concert.
Drachman told the audience his grandfather taught at the same time, in the same place, as Menotti. They'd pass each other in the halls, and his grandfather would ask Menotti, "When are you going to write a piece for me?"
First, Piatigorsky told Menotti he wanted the world to know no instrument could drown out his cello. Then he wanted the world to know the cello as a light, mercurial instrument. Then he said forget the other instruments in an orchestra - how about a cello duet?
The final product was called "Suite for Two Cellos and Piano."
"Based on the fact that we stand on the shoulders of giants, our (task) is not inventing a festival or trying to gain trust from the state of Alaska," said festival music director and cellist Zuill Bailey. "Our job is to consistently invigorate, educate, and ... continue to bring music to all ages ... I believe heavily in outreach, education, and making music really accessible - taking music to the people."
Bailey said as the organization's artistic director, he tries to balance the summer series between pieces with which audience members are comfortable and familiar, and "new things that will push them to accept new sounds."
There's another component as well: the artists' predilections.
"The last thing you want is to ask an artist ... to play something that they don't believe in," Bailey said.
Sometimes, artists will suggest pieces Bailey doesn't know, or a concert will become thematically or artist-driven.
"That's the fun in it," he said. "There are so many different variables."
One of the organization's big new events this year, outside the June concert series, is a cello seminar.
Ten college-aged cellists will be coming to Sitka from schools including Juilliard, the Cleveland Institute of Music and the New England Conservatory.
Sitka, Bailey said, has a "wonderful situation" in which the Fine Arts Camp exposes kids to a variety of arts. The festival brings top-notch performers to the town to showcase their talents. The cello seminar will bridge the gap between the two, encompassing "the middle range of the next generation of stars."
"They're getting ready to be launched into the world of professional musicians," he said.
The festival also is raising money to purchase Stevenson Hall on the former Sheldon Jackson College campus, where the festival and the Sitka Fine Arts Camp are now located.
For returning artists including Bailey, Sitka comes to feel like home.
"These are all my friends, and my family," Bailey said. "Most of the musicians that come here, by the end of their time here feel the same way. It's a safe place to feel free to create and feel good about it ... I find this the most special place on Earth. What a privilege and pleasure it is to make new friends, rekindle old friend(ships) and share music in paradise."