Festival connects audiences, chamber music

Musicians from the Gesher Music Festival of Emerging Artists perform at the Gatesworth senior living community. 

By Abby Abrams Jewish Light Intern

Markers and crayons drop from the sticky hands of children at the Jewish Community Center’s Milton Frank Camp of the Arts. Scraps of colored construction paper are abandoned amidst squeals of excitement and the rush to greet the five visitors who have just entered the room. Seeing instrument cases, a young girl asks if the visitors are musicians. They smile, explain that they are part of the Gesher Music Festival, then launch into an hour of musical fun and games.

The Gesher Music Festival of Emerging Artists, which ran from June 26 to July 3, was a new project by New Jewish Theatre’s Artistic Director Kathleen Sitzer, and her daughter Sara Sitzer. Kathleen served as the festival’s producer while Sara, a professional cellist, took on the role of artistic director, deciding everything from the musicians to the festival’s name. “Gesher” is the Hebrew word for bridge or connection, and this idea served as the central theme for the week.

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“[Gesher] is exactly what we’re trying to say about this program. It’s a program building all kinds of bridges and connections: connecting new audience members to classical chamber music, connecting new audiences to the J,” Kathleen Sitzer said. “This music is all in some way or other related to the Jewish experience, so [the festival is] also making that connection from the music to the Jewish experience. Along with that is reaching out to underserved groups or audiences who simply could not get here on their own.”

The festival included public performances and events in addition to several community outreach sessions. Throughout the week, the musicians visited senior living communities, a day camp and a juvenile detention center to play music and share the festival’s theme.

“From the way I grew up and how I understand the role of Judaism in the world, tikkun olam is very important. That’s a way of interpreting the festival. We [wanted] to reach people who couldn’t hear or are never exposed to classical music, so that’s how we chose the day camp, the senior living and the juvenile detention center,” Sara Sitzer said.

At the JCC day camp, four of the festival’s eight musicians along with the composer in residence, George Lam, organized composition activities for the kids. 

First the group played a game in which the children created different sound patterns that came together to form a larger rhythm. Then after learning more about each of the musician’s instruments, the children composed their own piece of music with help from Lam by way of suggestions and an improvised score illustrated on a dry erase board.

“Hopefully [the kids learned]…that music is not just written by dead old people, but that they can take part in and have fun with music,” Lam said.

The musicians began their outreach at the Gatesworth senior living community, and then visited the Covenant House/CHAI apartments and the Brentmoor retirement community later in the week. As Sara Sitzer explained to the residents of the Gatesworth, all of the music played during the festival had some Jewish connection, but none was traditional Jewish music. Some of the composers would be familiar to the residents, she said, and some have recognizable Jewish stories, while others were inspired by Jewish traditions or history.

“For example, Shostakovich is not Jewish, he’s agnostic,” Sara said. “But his second piano trio is inspired by Jewish folk melodies that he incorporates in the trio. He wrote it after World War II and it’s kind of a response to that.”

Many of the seniors at all three retirement centers have difficulty maneuvering at larger, public festival performances, so they expressed gratitude at the opportunity to experience a taste of the concert programs during the outreach sessions. Even those who are more physically able turned out for the daytime performances and seemed to enjoy the experience.

“I thought the musicians were wonderful,” Gerri Smith, a resident at the Gatesworth, said. “We had a large crowd here for [the performance]. I hope everybody appreciated it as much as I did because the musicians played beautifully.”

Another unique feature of the festival is the young age of its musicians; all of the musicians and the composer in residence are still beginning their professional careers. The New Jewish Theatre borrowed this idea of showcasing young professionals from Maestro Michael Tilson Thomas of the New World Symphony in Miami Beach, Fla., where Sara recently finished a three-year fellowship. As artistic director of the festival, Sara recruited musicians from across the country to participate and share their talents.

“You could nickname the festival ‘Six Degrees of Sara Sitzer,’” pianist Christina Lalog said. “All the musicians are friends or colleagues of Sara’s from somewhere.”

In addition to the musicians’ youth, the festival included yet another special element. The New Jewish Theatre commissioned Lam to write a piece of music specifically for the Gesher Music Festival. A world premiere, the piece was performed as part of the Concert A program on Wednesday, June 29 and Saturday, July 2. 

“[George] is not Jewish, but he [wrote] a Jewish piece [of music] expressly for the festival. He’s definitely somebody who didn’t know much about Judaism, but he learned a lot through writing this piece. He studied a lot of the core traditions of the religion and used those to compose the piece,” Sara said. 

Sara noted that the festival’s other musicians also seemed to have learned more about Judaism than they anticipated. What began as an opportunity to connect audiences with Jewish music, built bridges that linked musicians to a community as well. 

At the end of the week, both Sitzer women considered the festival a major success due to the quality of the program and the audiences’ enthusiastic response. They hope to make this an annual event and continue expanding the outreach and the musical offerings in the future.