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Gesher Music Festival continues to build cultural bridges

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 21, 2012 - The Gesher Music Festival of Emerging Artists made its debut last year with a unique approach - one that combined a focus on chamber music through the lens of Jewish culture with a commitment to showcasing young classical musicians in the beginning stages of promising professional careers.

The Gesher Fest came about through the combined talents of Kathleen Sitzer, artistic director of the New Jewish Theatre, and her daughter, cellist Sara Sitzer, who took on the role of artistic director for the festival.

Sara Sitzer, who has an impressive musical resume that began with membership in the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra, has earned degrees from Boston University and the University of Wisconsin and recently completed a three-year fellowship with the new World Symphony in Miami.

And although she has impressive orchestral credentials, Sitzer’s love of chamber music and connections with talented young musicians around the country provided her with an ideal skill set to help get the Gesher festival up and running.

Recently I caught up with Sara Sitzer in the lobby of the JCC after an intensive rehearsal of the Messiaen Quartet in the Wool Theatre. Despite another rehearsal set to begin later that afternoon, she was happy to discuss this year’s Gesher schedule, musician lineup and her hopes for the Gesher as it continues to grow and evolve.

The Gesher Festival will take place June 24 through July 1 – with most events at the Marvin and Harlene Wool Studio Theatre of the Jewish Community Center (Millstone Campus Drive, just west of Lindbergh Blvd. off Schuetz Rd.). There will be an opening house concert on June 24 and music by Gesher performers at a Shabbat service on June 29.


Sunday, June 24, 7:30 p.m.
An opening House concert at a private residence in the Central West End will feature previews of music and song to be performed during the Festival.
Tickets: $16.50

Monday, June 25, 7:30 p.m. (Wool Theatre)
Gala opening featuring Gesher musicians and guest artist Cantor Sharon Nathanson. Wine and hors d’oeuvres included.
Tickets: $37.50

Tuesday June 26, 7:30 pm (Wool Theatre)
Guest lecturer Dr. Glen Bauer, Associate Chair of the Department of Music at Webster University, will speak on the influence of Judaism on Dmitri Shostakovich.
Tickets: $11.50

Wednesday June 27 & Saturday June 30, 7:30 pm (Wool Theatre)
Golijov “Lullaby” & “Doina”
Paganini “Moses Variations”
Messiaen “Quartet for the End of Time”
Tickets: $21.50
Pre-Concert presentation on the Messiaen at 6:30 both evenings by Sara Sitzer

Thursday June 28 & Sunday July 1, 7:30 p.m. (Wool Theatre)
Schulhoff “Concertino”
Shostakovich “Quartet #4”
Golijov “How Slow the Wind” (with Cantor Nathanson)
Glick “Old Toronto Klezmer Suite”
Tickets: $21.50

Friday June 29, 7:30 p.m. (Central Reform Congregation)
Music by Gesher musicians will be incorporated into a Shabbat Service at the Congregation, 5020 Waterman.Free

“We were really happy with the way the schedule went for the first season,” explains Sitzer. “So we basically kept the same format of having two concert programs and repeating each one on a subsequent night, having a lecture related to a composer on the program, having an opening gala for the festival, and also playing music for a Shabbat service. But we did decide to add a house concert this coming Sunday. It’s something we thought about during last year’s Fest, and it seemed like an ideal way to kick things off.”

The June 24 house concert, (at the home of two Beacon editors) will feature the Chicago Q Ensemble and is just the beginning of a full week of Gesher events that will continue until the following Sunday, July 1.

The addition of the Ensemble to the Gesher schedule also marks another major difference from the inaugural event last year, according to Sitzer.

“Instead of a having a composer-in-residence like we did season,” she explains, “we’re bringing in a quartet-in-residence, the Chicago Q Ensemble. I have to admit I’ve been a member of the Ensemble for the last year since I moved to Chicago. I really feel pleased to be part of such a talented group of musicians, and have the chance to showcase them at the Gesher.”

In addition to Sitzer, musicians returning to the Gesher Festival in 2012 who also played in the inaugural fest include violinists Sage Cole, flutist Sarah Frisof and clarinetist Jack Marquardt.

New performers for 2012 include: violist Aimee Biasello, violinists Ellen McSweeney and Kathleen Carter (all members of the Chicago Q Ensemble), violist Dominic Johnson, bassist Adam Anello, pianist Yuko Kato and special guest vocalist Hazzan Sharon Nathanson, cantor for the B’nai Amoona Congregation here in St. Louis.

“It’s great to bring back Sage, Sarah and Jack, and we’re lucky to add such talented musicians as well. And with additional musicians, that opens up more possibilities for us in choosing the music for the festival.”

Last year’s inaugural event featured music by legends such as Prokofiev "Overature on Hebrew Themes" played at right), Mahler, Shostakovich, Mendelssohn and Copland – mixed with works by contemporary composers like Osvaldo Golijov, Paul Schoenfield and the 2011 composer-in-residence, George Lam.

For 2012, there’s again a balance between music by Jewish composers and music related in other ways to the Jewish experience. And as you might expect from a festival that features emerging artists, there’s both music by well-known composers and contemporary composers as well.

“In terms of the repertoire for this year,” says Sitzer, “about half the pieces are by Jewish composers, and we also have three other pieces with connections to Jewish culture. The Shostakovich Quartet was written at a time when he was very much influenced by Judaism, and it has strong elements of Jewish songs. We’ll also Paganini’s “Moses Variations” and Messiaen‘s “Quartet for the End of Time,” which he wrote in the early years of World War II in a German prisoner of war camp.

As she prepares for this week’s Gesher Festival, Sitzer is also thinking ahead to future festivals.

“I think the timing of it at the end of June is good, and one week of events works,” says Sitzer. “I also think it’s important to have a guest artist every year. And we’re trying different things with our outreach and educational elements of the festival this time around. We’re going to more places where we can connect with young people, like the Juvenile Detention Center in the city, as well as places like the Siteman Cancer Center.

“Gesher is Hebrew for bridge or connection,” concludes Sitzer. “And that’s exactly what we’re trying to do with all aspects of this festival. We want to make connections with music featuring emerging artists, music that reflects Jewish culture, and can also reach out to the larger community in St. Louis.”

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