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Fresh breezes at Sitka Festival

Mike Dunham
Musicians Catherine Weinfield, Sandra Robbins, Eduard Zilberkant, Elmar Oliveira and Zuill Bailey will present Sunday's Autumn Classics performance at Alaska Pacific University.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Tchaikovsky Award-winning violinist Oliveira joins cellist Bailey, violist Robbins, oboist Weinfield and pianist Zilberkant as the featured performers in the first weekend of Autumn Classics concerts.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Historic Stevenson Hall, on the campus of Sheldon Jackson College, will be the new permanent headquarters of the Sitka Summer Music Festival.
Photo courtesy Sitka Summer Music Festival
Historic Stevenson Hall, on the campus of Sheldon Jackson College, will be the new permanent headquarters of the Sitka Summer Music Festival.
Photo courtesy Sitka Summer Music Festival

In 2009, Sitka Summer Music Festival founder Paul Rosenthal announced that Zuill Bailey would replace him as director of the long-running series that presents high calibre chamber music around Alaska, from the biggest cities to far-flung villages.

The transition has been slow and careful. The two shared responsibilities through last year.

"This has been kind of a dream scenario," said Bailey. "It's led to a comfort zone where I'm able to focus on the artistic part very purely."

The process has helped him "understand the mechanics of how this organization has such a big impact on the state" and also helped him become familiar with the various communities where musicians connected to the festival perform. This summer marked his sixth appearance in Sitka. Last week he performed the Bach cello suites in Juneau. This weekend and next he presides over the Alaska Airlines Autumn Classics series in Anchorage.

As usual, the programs include well-loved plums of chamber music repertoire, like Mozart's G Minor Piano Quartet, which concludes Sunday's concert, the Mendelssohn Piano Trio next Sunday and, on Saturday, the Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata.

But there are also some notable departures from the standard literature. This Sunday's lineup includes an arrangement of the Sinfonia from Bach's "Easter Oratorio" for oboe and piano, featuring oboist Catherine Weinfield, who also performed in two seldom-heard rhapsodies for oboe, viola and piano by Charles Loeffler. (Reviews are posted on artsnob.)

Loeffler (1861-1935), a French-born American composer who melded impressionism and jazz was among America's leading composers 100 years ago and is experiencing something of a revival. However, even Weinfield admitted she hadn't heard much of his music. "But for oboists, the rhapsodies are really important," she said prior to a rehearsal on Wednesday in Anchorage.

"Weinfield's a big champion of the Loeffler," Bailey said. "It fits with what we're trying to do, bringing unique instruments and perspectives into each of the series, unusual configurations of instruments that weave an interesting ribbon, a new voice, into the music. A lot of these composers didn't just write for the standard string groups."

The Sunday concert will also include Elmar Oliveira, the only American violinist to win the Tchaikovsky Competition, in Beethoven's "Spring" Sonata. He'll be accompanied by University of Alaska Fairbanks music professor Eduard Zilberkant. In addition to weaving unusual combinations of instruments into the series, Bailey said he's also endeavoring to weave in Alaska musicians.

Oliveira presented a memorable reading of Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto with the Anchorage Symphony in 1993. He will return to Anchorage on Nov. 10 to play the Mendelssohn Concerto.


The second weekend of the Autumn Classics will break new ground in several ways. Among the performers will be the much-recorded Australian pianist Piers Lane, who will play the complete collection of Chopin Nocturnes in a single program.

"I swear he has 22 fingers," said Bailey. "When he holds up his hands, I only count 10, but I don't believe it. And when he performs, you don't hear piano playing; you hear pure music."

Chopin's Nocturnes ("music of the night") are some of the most mesmerizing and melodic music written by Chopin, who Bailey noted was among "the greatest composers of melody." Individual "night pieces" are regularly inserted into recitals. But to hear the all-in-one program is highly unusual, perhaps unprecedented.

"It's a project I've wanted to do for a long time," said Bailey. He thinks the effect would be similar to the remarkable reaction Anchorage audiences had to his own reading of the complete Bach cello suites. "(Bach's) 'Goldberg Variations' has that kind of effect," he said. "I think it's going to be off-the-charts magical."

For Lane's solo recital, the Autumn Classics will move for one night from its usual Anchorage home at Alaska Pacific University to the Discovery Theatre downtown. It's a matter of logistics, Bailey said. The all-Chopin affair is expected to draw a bigger audience than can fit in Grant Hall and scheduling a second performance is not practical.

"He's only going to do it once," Bailey said. "And I don't think people will hear (the complete nocturnes) again any time soon."

Another twist in this year's series will be the world premiere of "Chopin's Waterloo" by British composer Benjamin Wallfisch.

"I had a brainstorm a few years ago to create a consortium of festivals," he said. Lane directs a chamber music festival in Australia and Bailey also directs one in El Paso, Texas. They joined with a festival in England to commission the new work for all of them to play.

"It's a real coup for us," said Bailey, stressing that the world premiere will take place at Grant Hall on Sept. 23. "The first notes ever heard of this piece will be right here in Alaska."


Bailey's vision for the future of the festival received a physical touchstone this year when the group acquired Stevenson Hall in Sitka. Originally built in 1911 as a dormitory for girls attending Sheldon Jackson College, the two story building had previously been used to house guests of the festival.

Sitkans have undertaken a broad project to revamp the college, which closed in 2007, as an arts center serving all of Alaska and attracting visitors from outside the state. Alaska Arts Southeast has taken ownership of the core campus buildings and, with a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and thousands of volunteer hours, is working to revitalize the space.

For example, the festival is collaborating with the Sitka Fine Arts Camp on the campus, which drew 567 students this summer. Bailey taught master classes to middle schoolers and Anchorage pianist Susan Wingrove worked with choir students. Work is under way for a 10-week Sitka arts extravaganza next summer and the Sitka Summer Music Festival will be an integral part of it.

Plans for Stevenson Hall call for the music festival to have offices on the first floor and residential quarters for visiting artists upstairs. There will be rehearsal spaces, gathering rooms, lounge facilities, spaces for rehearsals open to the public and a kitchen to cater receptions.

"The hall will be kind of a mother ship for us," said Bailey. "Our administrative headquarters for everything. It will enable us to offer residencies throughout the year."

Visiting musicians will base in Sitka while touring other towns in Alaska under the festival's auspices, he said.

"They can come and prepare for their tour and be surrounded by the beauty of Alaska in a very secure setting. It will be a safe haven for pure thought, a place where people to feel free to be creative."

At the moment the festival is working to bring the old building up to modern safety codes, Bailey said.

"It's just beginning -- but the canvas is set."

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.

ALASKA AIRLINES AUTUMN CLASSICS series will take place at Alaska Pacific University's Grant Hall, except as noted. Tickets are available at

A review of earlier recitals is now posted online.

Sunday, 4 p.m. Program includes the Sinfonia of Bach's "Easter Oratorio," Beethoven's "Spring" Violin Sonata, Liszt's "Mephisto Waltz No. 1" and Mozart's Piano Quartet in G Minor.

Friday, 7:30 p.m. in the Discovery Theatre. Piers Lane performs the complete Chopin Nocturnes.

Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Program includes Smetana's "From My Homeland" and the Cello Sonata of Rachmaninoff.

Sunday, Sept. 23, 4 p.m. Program includes the world premiere of "Chopin's Waterloo" by Benjamin Wallfisch and Mendelssohn's Piano Trio in D Minor.

More about Stevenson Hall, the new permament headquarters of the the Sitka Music Festival, avalible here.

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