For 50 years the Sitka Summer Music Festival has brought the world of chamber music to our remote island town on the fringe of the Pacific. Because we’re remote, we appreciate the world coming to Sitka at the start of every summer. It’s a time of renewal.
So last summer there was a big, empty, festival shaped, June sized hole; no festival; no concerts, no parties, no boat trips, no ice cream socials, no open rehearsals, no salmon bakes. We did have a virtual festival with artists playing from their homes and a drive through crab feed. We appreciated it. But it was not the festival we craved.
A festival is more than listening to music, it’s full community engagement with the music, the musicians, and each other. It’s not only listening to music in the concert hall, but discussing books in the lobby or renewing acquaintance with friends from neighboring towns who come over for the festival.
This year’s festival was a wonderful reunion of musicians, music, people and joy. It was different from past festivals. The evening concerts were shorter, just an hour with no intermission, no mingling (well, we mingled more as the month wore on) and with two identical concerts each evening so the hall could be half full. We had Wednesday concerts on the lawn, with musicians on the porch (ok the Steinway was inside and micd to speakers outside) of the newly christened Minor Music Center in Stevenson Hall on the Sitka Fine Arts Campus. We sat in the sun, the rain, and the fog. A tree less than 100 yards from Stevenson Hall held a nest with eaglets crying out for food and mama and papa eagle swooping low and feeding the chattering birds. Cellist Zuill Baily has been telling us for years that the cello can produce the whole range of the human voice. This year he proved it can also create a pretty convincing eagle call. In an Alaskan touch was Yuliya Gorenman played Chopin in Xtratuffs, known locally as “Sitka Sneakers.” She gave up and went to bare feet on the pedals.
We had our ice cream social on the lawn and the Minor Music Center ribbon cutting. The crab feed was still drive through and the lectures on the music was available virtually. But we had the festival, this year it was more adventuresome than most, with music from the 18th to the 21st century. The festival introduced us to a lot of new music but still gave us the standards we are accustomed to, starting with Rachmaninoff and ending with Dvorak. Both highlights for me as was a piece by Amy Beach. But it was the joy of discovery of new composers (to me) like the Turkish composer Fazil Say, Florence Price who based her compositions on American Folk Songs and Jessie Montgomery’s “Strum” that made this festival something special.