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Gesher Music Festival builds even more bridges in its third year

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 19, 2013 - The Gesher Music Festival for Emerging Artists kicks off its third season on Sunday June 23, and the event seems focused on an ambitious effort to expand its stated mission “…to enrich the cultural life of the entire St. Louis community through a unique chamber music experience in an intimate setting, expose new audiences to classical music, promote emerging artists, and infuse the experience with Jewish thematic content.”

“Gesher is the Hebrew word for bridge or connection,” says Sara Sitzer, artistic director of the Festival during a recent interview in Clayton that included the Gesher’s new program director, Dee Sparks. “And that’s essentially what we’re trying to do with the festival – look for new ways to connect chamber music to the community. And as the Festival has grown, one of the ways we’re building connections is by expanding the number of venues that are part of Gesher.”

At first, the Gesher Festival was primarily at the Jewish Community Center  – specifically, the Marvin and Harlene Wool Studio Theater. Since Sitzer’s mother, Kathleen, is the artistic director of the New Jewish Theatre, which presents its season at the Wool, that venue provided an ideal space for the music Festival to get its start. House concerts have also been a part of the schedule.

But according to Sara Sitzer -- who grew up in St. Louis, and now lives in Chicago where she performs with groups such as the Q Ensemble -- it’s time to reach out and expand the Gesher by presenting performances in more places.

“We’re trying to reach new people by including venues like the Kranzberg Arts Center, the Ethical Society and the Tavern of Fine Arts,” she explains. “The first two years we had repeat performances of our two chamber music programs on different nights at the Wool Theater. But now we’re moving those repeat performances to the Ethical Society and the Kranzberg.”

In addition, the Gesher will present a free performance at the Tavern of Fine Arts on Monday, June 24 – a venue where Sitzer and other musicians performed a benefit concert for the Gesher festival on May 25.

“The Tavern of Fine Arts was such a fun venue to play for our benefit event,” says Sitzer. “It’s got a wonderful, intimate atmosphere, and we really wanted to include it in our Festival schedule as well. So that will be a free evening of music. But the Tavern always donates a percentage of all food and drink sales during a performance to the artist. So we hope everyone comes hungry and has fun!”

Other elements of the festival, such as the gala opening concert and a special house concert, are still part of the Gesher. But there’s an interesting twist in terms of the gala according to Sitzer.

"We definitely wanted to have a special guest artist this year, and I thought of Peter Martin,” says Sitzer. “Peter’s mom, Rose, was my first chamber music teacher, so although I didn’t know Peter really well, I felt that I had a connection with his family. We just decided to ask him, and Peter was willing and able to do it.”

Martin has earned an international reputation as a jazz pianist, with a string of acclaimed recordings as a leader as well as a resume that includes work with Joshua Redman and as the musical director for renowned vocalist Dianne Reeves.

In addition to the regular Gesher schedule, the Festival has emphasized outreach events in the community every year. And that aspect has increased considerably in 2013, according to Sparks.

“We’re definitely doing more outreach events this time,” she says. “We’ll be playing at the Juvenile Detention Center, Covenant House Retirement Community, Community Music School and the Siteman Cancer Center. And we’ll also be doing pop-up concerts in unexpected places as well, which we’ll announce on our Facebook page.”

In terms of the Gesher’s mission of promoting emerging artists, Sitzer is especially pleased that the roster of musicians for this year’s Festival has expanded – and includes a number of St. Louis musicians who are making their first appearance.

“One reason we have a larger group of musicians is primarily because we’re playing the Mendelssohn Octet,” explains Sitzer. “We have two clarinets instead of one and additional strings. But it’s also a great way to have more St. Louis musicians involved – and bring in some talented musicians from outside St. Louis as well.”

Musicians with St. Louis ties making their debut at the Gesher this year include: violinists Cecilia Belcher, Elizabeth Ramos and Manuela Kaymakanova and clarinetist Dana Hotle. Returning St. Louis-connected musicians are Sitzer and bassist Adam Anello. Returning musicians from outside St. Louis are viola player Dominic Johnson, flutist Sarah Frisof and clarinetist Jack Marquardt. Also new this year are Tarn Travers – violin, Philip Kramp – viola, Patricia Garvey – cello and Daniel Pesca – piano.

In terms of the repertoire this year, Sitzer emphasized that in addition to the mission of choosing music relevant to Jewish as well as other cultures, there was a decision to include music written by Middle Eastern composers – including Israelis Shulamit Ran (winner of the 1991 Pulitzer Prize) and Gilad Hochman as well as Iranian Reza Vali.

Hochman’s work, “Shedun Fini,” was written in homage to Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony, and Sitzer says, “we’ll be doing Schubert’s Trout Quintet on the same program. … This will actually be the U.S. premiere of the piece, so we’re very proud of that.

“Vali's “Folk Songs” is based on Persian folk music, and features two musicians playing a wide variety of instruments - four kinds of flutes and a tambourine, and the cellist also plays a drum and water glasses – plus singing! We’re hoping the music can help build a connection.”

For more information about the Gesher Music Festival, go to www.geshermusicfestival.org.

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer.

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