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Juneau Jazz & Classics Celebrates 25 Years of Great Music
By Mary Lou Gerbi
Stirring Juneau’s Musical Melting Pot
It takes part music, part locale, and multiple parts performers, volunteers, donors, and audiences to create Juneau Jazz & Classics, the capital city’s annual musical extravaganza. With its offering of both jazz and classical music, along with a sprinkling of blues, gospel, salsa, and soul, Jazz & Classics is a proverbial “musical melting pot”—one that has been simmering for a quarter of a century and is ready to be served up again.
Juneau Jazz & Classics, which premiered in 1987, is celebrating its Silver Anniversary this May with a three-weekend, jam-packed lineup of guest artists ready to perform for Juneau’s appreciative and enthusiastic audiences.
Making a Music Festival
Music festivals bring people together to experience world-class live music. They bridge generational, cultural, and musical boundaries in arts-friendly, breathtaking settings.
“So, why not Juneau?” That was the question festival founder and artistic director Linda Rosenthal asked in 1986. She proceeded to gather a group of musicians, business leaders, and interested community members to help her realize her vision and kicked off that first festival in 1987.
Today, Juneau Jazz & Classics is a living, breathing entity, something that’s as much a sign of spring as the weather turning warmer. “It’s festive and inspiring, a blend of music and scenery that is the soul of Juneau,” said Rosenthal.
In addition to its lure as an exotic location with dig-out-your-camera scenery, Juneau offers some fairly unique performance venues. Formal and informal, paid and free concerts and educational workshops occur where people gather, in malls, restaurants, bookstores, bakeries, schools, churches, clothing stores, senior centers, the Baranof Hotel, Gold Creek Salmon Bake, Chapel by the Lake—even a glacier.
The spectacular settings complement the music. One year the backdrop was Juneau’s giant chunk of 3,000-year-old ice, the Mendenhall Glacier. The whole week before the 2001 Strings at the Glacier concert the weather was miserable, said former executive director Nancy DeCherney. “The day of that concert was glorious. Over 200 brave souls schlepped out there to Nugget Falls, the waterfall by the glacier. It was an amazing concert. Delightful.”
The twelve Ursa Major String Ensemble musicians and guest artists Gwen Thompson and Armen Ksajikian paddled across the glacier’s lake in traditional Auk Ta Shaa Discovery Tlingit war canoes as Juneau’s Rick Trostel announced their arrival by trumpet.
Serenaded by the Strings at the Glacier musicians, eagles soared and arctic terns performed aerial gymnastics. “It was fantastic, a very, very special event,” said Suzuki music teacher and Ensemble conductor Guo Hua Xia.
“It started to rain as we left,” DeCherney said.
“That day, that performance—it was a dream come true: a sunny day with kids, community members, and guest artists side by side in a magical setting,” Rosenthal reminisced.
In addition to the scenery, wild life, and appreciative audiences, Rosenthal also gives credit to the guest artists for their flexibility. “Superb musicians all, they leap at the chance to play Bach at the face of Mendenhall Glacier, blues in the atrium of the State Office Building, and Beethoven or Ellington on the concert stage.”
Downtown Juneau has also served as a performance venue. During the Magnificent Memorial Day Musicale in 1998 and Sunday Serenade in 1999, festival goers were treated to musical performances ranging from Tlingit Gospel Singers to a special Alpenhorn performance at the top of Mount Roberts Tram.
Since the beginning, another favorite location for concerts and workshops has been the University of Alaska Southeast Auke Lake campus. For years, the festival has teamed up with the University of Alaska Southeast and the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council to provide local artists with the opportunity to perform with festival guest artists in back-to-back concerts at Community Day on Campus. In addition to the performances, food and other booths, activities for kids of all ages and workshops create a true festival atmosphere.
On a smaller scale, performing late afternoon at Heritage Coffee Shop, cellist Evan Drachman had to compete with the espresso machine. “This is a sonata for cello and espresso machine,” he told his audience as he began playing. “He mesmerizes students at the State Office Building,” said Jazz & Classics 25-year board member Kathy Ruddy.
Among the most popular venues are catamarans sailing the waters of Gastineau Channel and Auke Bay alongside cruise ships, fishing vessels and the occasional pod of orcas. The Blues Cruise began in 1992 followed by Classical Cruises in 1995. “These cruises are sold out months in advance,” said Senator Dennis Egan. “They’re really neat.” Egan, an early board member and current advisor, likes all the Jazz & Classics musical offerings. “We’ve had some really big people here, like Dave Brubeck and Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. She had a top-of-the-chart hit when she was here in Juneau,” Senator Egan said.
Another festival goer, former mayor Sally Smith remembers a recent cruise, as well. “It was a pristine, drop-dead gorgeous day as we departed Auke Bay harbor to listen to the fantastic young musicians of the Jasper String Quartet and enjoy a buffet brunch compete with champagne. Where else can you hear the highest quality of m usicianship in a town of 30,000? It was a sensual experience, one you can’t have anywhere else but in Juneau.”
As the festival grows, Juneau Jazz & Classics has expanded its range to include other southeast communities. Picture the surprise of Alaska Marine Highway ferry travelers as festival musicians placed their music stands in front of a pile of linen and serenaded passengers with the heavenly strains of Schubert, Haydn, and Beethoven en route to and from Hoonah, Haines, Skagway, and Tenakee Springs. When someone spotted humpback whales breaching, the musicians paused, everyone surged to the side of the boat to gawk at and photograph the whales exhaling puffs of mist, followed by flukes up, a dive, and then the concert resumed. That’s music Juneau Jazz & Classics style.
“Since we don’t have a dedicated performing arts center yet,” Rosenthal said, “any place in Juneau becomes a potential concert hall.” Each year, Rosenthal searches for unusual venues that are appropriate for the music being performed and can showcase Juneau. In 2011, there will be performances at the Treadwell Ice Arena, the Shrine of St. Therese, and a street party at the Canvas Community Art Studio and Gallery, among other unusual venues.