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 The Arts: Music   
The Little Town with the Big Music Festival
(From Spring 1997)

by Jocelyn Paine

Usually I'm up early to hike an hour-and-a-half before breakfast, but today Tony the cellist beats me to it. It's cold, in the low 50s, and there's a light rain, and he's up at 6 a.m. to go sea kayaking. On one of the rare sunny days, Gordon, now that he's retired from conducting and spends most of his time composing, takes some of us up and down a steep mountainside on a hot, unsuccessful search for the quintessential view of what he calls a "magical" waterfall. No matter we never find it, the journey is worth it!

This week the dorm is almost all women; it's usually the other way around. We stay up until three a.m. one night sipping wine, gossiping about sleazy orchestra side-jobs. Kyoko calls friends in Tokyo while Diane the violinist and I discuss that age-old question: "Is there life after death?" The highlight of yet another rainy afternoon is a salmon bake: the fish is wrapped in skunk cabbage leaves and buried in the ground with a fire built over it. We make roasted marshmallows for appetizers.

Some kind of fancy adult music camp? No, just a typical week in the month-long chamber music celebration called the Sitka Summer Music Festival. Located on Baranof Island, just 95 air miles from Juneau in Southeast Alaska, Sitka has the well deserved reputation of being "the most beautiful town" in the state, a title not given lightly, for Alaska abounds in superlatives. Sitka and its environs alone account for a variety of vistas—from dripping, enchanted rain forests to little fog-shrouded islands dotted with pine trees to towering mountains and cheerfully thundering waterfalls to...well, you get the picture.

Everywhere you look is a picture, even the town itself with its 200 years of Russian and American architecture and centuries-long Tlingit Indian history. There is one traffic light downtown and only 15 miles of paved road. One end is the marshy braided Starrigavin delta; the other leads to the defunct pulp mill, tucked up next to the trailheads of a couple of charming hikes where I hear the fishing is good.

Many of the trails are rather precipitous. In the cataclysmic retreat of the glaciers that corrugated the upper parts of the continent, Alaska was left rough-sketched. The mountains are sharp and young. The slopes are steep, the ridges narrow. Gavin Hill, a popular hike, is only possible because of wooden steps built into the hillside. I almost reached the ridgetop and counted over 700. That's one way: up.

Every place has its drawbacks. It does rain a lot here—100 inches annually—but, hey, it is a light rain most of the time, and long-term residents seem to thrive on it, eschewing raincoats and never, ever, using umbrellas. The smooth, clear skin of many yearrounders testifies to the benefits of living in a well-hydrated climate. Mayor Pete Halgren claims the rain washes out uncommitted undesirables.

Sitka is sort of small by some people's standards—about 9,000 residents yearround—but hardly unsophisticated. Only a two-hour plane ride from Seattle, the town is so attractive to summertime tourists that herds almost overrun the main street, a store-lined five blocks. There are several aspiring gourmets among the restaurant owners. Red snapper soft shell tacos, mouth-watering white salmon (caught at sea before the hormonal mating changes tinge the flesh), and Asian cuisine from the Twin Dragon, plus several espresso bars and an elegant, upscale chocolate shop keep Sitkans' stomachs from getting bored.

One of the best-stocked bookstores I've ever seen supplies food for the intellect. It has a sign prominently displayed near the front door: Please Don't Drip on the Books. The single movie theater does tend toward action films, but there are a lot of other visual stimuli available (besides the stunning views), and so many art galleries displaying and selling contemporary arts and crafts, I didn't bother to count them.

June 1996 marked the 25th Anniversary of the Sitka Summer Music Festival (SSMF). I go there as a volunteer, helping out Administrative Director Helen Howorth. The days are long, 12 to 14 hours, seven days a week, but I have the scenery from my dorm window, a sweeping view of the bay, and all the music I could want. All of the 29 musicians (more than usual, average is 15-20) who are featured have been previous visitors. Especially important are the five musicians who co-founded the Festival: pianist Doris Stevenson, cellist Nathaniel Rosen, violinist Yukiko Kamei, violist Linda Rosenthal, and the man with whom the Festival is most closely identified, Paul Rosenthal (mostly violin, sometimes viola).

Thad Poulson, a charming man with a fondness for crisp, old-fashioned shirts and suspenders, publishes and edits the local newspaper, the Sitka Sentinel. He describes his first sight of Paul Rosenthal: "This dramatic little violinist—I think he was wearing a white suit—very exotic guy for Sitka, full of enthusiasm. He was going to start a music festival. He spent a lot of time here. He would write the press releases, do everything except sell the tickets."

Rosenthal is just below average height, with large, expressive eyes and a manner of leaning expectantly forward toward a person, just as he leans passionately into the music he is playing. When he founded the Festival he had a mountain-man beard that reached to his second shirt button. Now he keeps it trimmed, and his formerly full head of hair is thinning on top. Regardless of the terrain or weather, he always wears thin-soled, soft leather shoes. He is enthusiastic, energetic, easily bored, except for the music.

Twenty-five years ago a group of very talented students was graduating from the conservatories, Rosenthal among them. He had studied with Gregor Piatigorsky and Jascha Heifetz. He didn't want to pursue the lonely and difficult life of the soloist—there are so few artists who make it to the top in that category. The cloistered, structured routine of teaching wasn't right either, and orchestra work was appalling to him. In a recent article on chamber music, New Yorker magazine cited a study that ranked job satisfaction in the profession of symphony performers at seventh on a scale of 13, below that of a prison guard.

Fifty years ago there had been a "first wave" of music festivals. It produced the biggies, like Marlboro and Spoleto, festivals that are more events than music, that attract thousands of attendees. To Paul, the thought of starting something along those lines with practically no funding seemed almost as much of a burden as becoming a soloist. Sitka, he decided, would be just the right size.

The SSMF is the town's largest, most important cultural event. Thirty-four volunteer groups vie for the right to provide after-concert refreshments for the eight concerts. This last season, in honor of the 25th anniversary, they also did special decorations. At the house party concert they produced a "birthday" cake with Paul's photo in edible rice paper glued on top. Grace Schaible, who travels each year from Fairbanks and rents a room in the Shee Atika for the whole month, produced 100 commemorative coasters in needlepoint for Festival musicians and workers, a project that took her two years to complete.

The Hotel Shee Atika has trouble fitting in any tourist who hasn't reserved in advance because Festival business is so good. Fliers go up all over town, in venues varying from the chic espresso bars to the bowling alley. The musicians descending on the town are all friends of Rosenthal. "We knew nothing about the life or the means of professional musicians," says Thad Poulson. "After two or three years seeing the same faces we became acquaintances and friends. There's this flight of exotic birds that come down to Sitka to stay every year."

Many musicians would never be able to summon the organizational acumen to create a festival, but several regulars have already spun off their own festivals in other cities: Yukiko Kamei in Los Angeles, Toby Saks with her Seattle festival, Ik-Hwan Bae's famous Barge Music Series in New York City, Christiaan Bor in Holland, Philip Lewis in Dallas. The Sitka Musicians have toured to 30 towns all over Alaska, playing in high school gyms and churches. For the last 15 years they have brought several SSMF musicians to Anchorage twice a year for the Alaska Airlines Autumn and Winter Classics. Unlike performers in most of these festivals, the Sitka musicians perform gratis, receiving only their airfare, meals and minimal rooms in the Sheldon Jackson dorms. Well, they do get Sitka for a week or two. Many of them call the SSMF the best part of their year and organize their schedules to allow for this working vacation.

Living in a dormitory gives a summer camp feel to the Festival. Sheldon Jackson College, a Presbyterian-endowed collection of buildings, some built as far back as 1911, has a frontier-town aesthetic. Like a Western movie set, with dark brown, cross-braced beams, sort of pseudo-Tudor on the outside, a distinct sag to the floors and stairs that creak and lean alarmingly. Anything that rolls can't be placed on the dresser, or it "walks" off onto the floor. But the deep, cast iron claw-foot tub is heavenly, even if the showers are, well, primitive. The unisex bathroom has a hand-lettered sign, Men/Women, that the occupant must post to prevent surprises.

The college cuts the Festival a deal: room and board with meals at the cafeteria, joining the volunteer summer Missionary work crews and Elderhostel visitors. Musicians practice in the thin-walled rooms, and it is not uncommon to wake up or go to sleep to snatches of Bach, Beethoven or scales.

Professional musicians still do play their scales. And their arpeggios and glissandos. For musical groupies it is delicious. Nothing is luxurious; the sheets are worn so thin from use that they are filmy, and the cafeteria food, while plentiful, is straightforward Americana with a dash of preservative. The pleasant mixture of sophisticated rustic and world-class scenery is particularly suited to the well-traveled musicians who play for the Festival. They make sure they are comfortable wherever they are. They pack their own espresso pots, coffee beans and grinders. They call up friends jetting in and tell them to stop by the bakery for fresh bagels (to go with local smoked salmon).

What created this marriage of flannel shirts and Guarneris? Rosenthal was on tour with the Arctic Chamber Orchestra when he first visited Sitka. He stood in the beautifully designed Centennial Hall. He walked the streets of the friendly town and experienced what he described as "a flash...the first time in my life I've understood that phrase." The glass-walled back of the Centennial Hall opens out onto the Sitka Harbor. When the back curtains are open, as they are for all concerts, the long Alaskan summer days allow a spectacular vista, small islands littering a changeable bay, distant mountains, eagles fishing, perching or flying across the view.

Centennial Hall is very popular in June for wedding receptions. The Hall can be filled with white columns defining a dance area, twined with swaths of tulle and fake ivy. Two or three hundred guests dance until late. Then everything is cleared out, the cake crumbs swept up by Don, Kent and the hard-working crew, and four or five hundred chairs are set out for the scheduled tourist shows. Small lightering tender boars scurry out from the huge ships, several a day anchoring in the bay, most of them taller than any building in town, bringing sweatshirted, camera-toting visitors, Sitka's major industry since the pulp mill closed. They come to get a slice of what Sitka is and was, from the historic Bishop's house (residence of the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church when Sitka was a Russian capital) to the present-day remains of Native culture.

The Sitka Tribe, Tlingit Indians, have made a successful business of providing tourists with a glimpse of Native life. Their dance troupe and active totem carvers also help preserve Native culture. Sitka Tribe tourist buses take visitors ten or so blocks to Totem Park, site of the Sitka Massacre in 1804. The Russians were at first routed by the Indians, who fought with farm implements, iron hammers, wooden weapons. In retaliation, they were shelled by cannon from the ships in the harbor. There remains a stubborn wildness in the well-manicured park. It was closed for a couple of days when I was there because of an unconfirmed bear sighting, and sometimes the paths are decorated with disconcertingly huge chunks of dead salmon dropped by ravens.

After 4 p.m. the tourists are gone and the piano can be pulled out onto the Centennial Hall stage for the Festival musicians. All rehearsals in the Hall are open to the public. It is quite a different experience to sit with only a dozen other people and hear the musicians hash out the details of their attack.

Because of the influence of the Festival, strings are the instrument of choice for many young musicians in town. Barbara Rocheleau teaches violin. Many of her violin students attend the rehearsals or usher at the concerts. One young man, Kieran, when he was told he was too young (and maybe too small) to be an usher, took his violin and played on street corners, earning more than enough to pay for his season ticket, bring his mother to the first concert, and put some money aside for his future musical education.

Concert goers line up at 7 p.m. for a preconcert lecture. Prize seats are in the front rows; seating is first-come. Sitka is a casual town; some come in working or hiking clothes, maybe stashing their backpacks at the rear. Others dress up a bit. No one is expected to, however; this isn't the big city, and people figure you don't have to be spruced up to listen well. Board members take tickets, sell CD's, T-shirts and posters. Down the hall an assembly meeting is going on. The Board members might very well be there instead if they weren't at the Sitka Festival tables. Board members are very hard-working. They may claim not to know much about music, but they know what they like.

Sitkans like being friends with these "exotic birds," inviting musicians to their homes for dinner, or to practice on their baby grands. Several friendships have ensued, visits back and forth across the country, yearly rituals of meeting. Cellist Stephan Kates and his wife honeymooned here 15 years ago and have made the 25th anniversary into a second honeymoon. Former administrator Rick Goodfellow and Jan Ingram were married in the stone-walled St. Peters-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church, with Rosenthal in a quartet playing Haydn. Each year cellist Tony Elliot plays for the congregation of St. Gregory's Church and brings tears to the eyes of his audience. Elliot calls his Sitka visit the "highlight of my year." Sitkans and musicians mingle and the musicians, so often isolated on stage by their extraordinary talents, feel they are part of a community.

It is not uncommon for Rosenthal and friends from the Festival to tour the bars, sometimes gathering compliments and reviews about their most recent performance from the other patrons. No matter how late they are out, the musicians are always at morning rehearsal, and it seems the wild days of the youthful Festival shenanigans are over. As the artists have grown older, they have mellowed. Nostalgic stories are told about dancing on tables and an aborted male strip tease; bar closing is an infrequent event now.

The graying of the performers and of the audience is beginning to present problems. Milton Thomas, a violist in his mid-70's, is occasionally forgetful these days, slowly making his way from the cafeteria to the dorm, losing things, but with his 1699 Mateo Goffriller viola in his hands he still calls forth a pure sound, justly proud of his bow hand. There have been losses this last year; two longtime and important supporters of the Festival died. One great loss was Helen Walker, who had been a strong financial contributor, funding some of Paul Rosenthal's first Alaskan performances and providing the means for the Festival to produce its first recording, of late 19th Century Russian composer Sergei Ivanovich Taneyev, a previously-unknown quintet ‘discovered' in the little used (except by the Festival) Sheldon Jackson College musical library.

What is the future of the Sitka Music Festival? New York City music agent John Gingrich describes the Festival as "well-regarded," citing its distant location as a perk. "Face it," he says, "a musician is going to be in a concert hall somewhere—Aspen, Santa Fe. Sitka definitely wins out!" But Gingrich admits that he'd advise any of his artists to take a paying job in preference to non-paying Sitka.

In the overall pantheon of music festivals, Sitka may not be at the top. It has neither the attendance numbers nor the household name performers. The possibility is that it never will be in that category—nor does it necessarily aspire to that position. The Sitka Summer Music Festival has acquired a quality few other larger festivals could capture. It possesses the essence of chamber music, that sense of having been invited to sit with friends while they play together. Is this what an audience might have felt in the drawing rooms of the 17th century? Lines between performer and audience are not drawn. For an audience, this is a privilege; for a performer it is the goal. When everything is right, the feeling is exhilarating. Set in a place of such astounding natural beauty, the experience can be transcendent.

Jocelyn Paine is a freelance writer based in Alaska.

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