Philip Lewis,
Artistic Director

Chih-Yi Chen
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News Detail

The Sitka Connection

In 1972, young violinist Paul Rosenthal visited Sitka, Alaska, and fell in love with its mountains, its seas, its skies, and its people. He decided it would be the perfect place for a reunion of fellow proteges of Gregor Piatigorski and Paul’s teacher, Jascha Heifetz. He convinced a handful of Alaskans to provide his musician friends with one-way airfare to Sitka. They put on a series of concerts, and sold just enough tickets to buy their airfare home. Thus the Sitka Summer Festival was born.

Over the years the Sitka festival has grown. It now encompasses three weeks of concerts in Sitka, where concerts in the town of 8,000 people regularly draw an audience of 500 people. It also includes trips to other towns and cities of Alaska, to bring the music to those who otherwise would not have access. Fall and Winter series in Anchorage have also been added. What made the Sitka festival unique is that instead of bringing in set groups, Paul brought in individual musicians from all over the world to play mixed programs of music. It made each piece an act of creation.

The musicians loved the spontaneity, the comradeship, and the creative energy of it. Playing on a stage with a panoramic view of glaciers and wildlife added a touch of magic as well. Many of the early attendees were so moved that they went on to start similar festivals of their own all over the world: Christian Bor in Amsterdam, Yukiko Kamei in L.A., Ik-Hwan Bae in New York, Toby Saks in Seattle.

Phil Lewis, now artistic director of Chamber Music International, first got to know Paul in the sixties, when both were attending USC. Paul was studying violin with Heifetz, while Phil was studying Classical Literature and considering going into law school. However, when it came time to make a choice, the music won out for Phil, who left USC for the Peabody Conservatory in 1968. He did not see Paul again until 1984, when they ran into each other at a famous violin shop in New York City. The two renewed their friendship, and Phil invited Paul to do a recital at the University of North Texas.

Phil first attended the Sitka festival a couple years later, and quickly fell under its spell. “I don’t think I’ve ever had more appreciative audiences than Alaska audiences. They are incredibly sincere and enthusiastic.” As part of his first festival, Phil flew to the tiny town of Gustavas to give a concert. “It was amazing,” he reports. “It was a town of 110 people, and we had 100 at the concert.”

Phil was so inspired that he came back with a desire to create a similar festival in the Dallas area. In 1986, he put together a series of three concerts with friends from other festivals and musicians that Paul recommended. That first small series has grown over the years into what is now Chamber Music International.

During the early years of CMI (then Richardson Chamber Music Society) Paul was a valuable resource. “I was always calling and asking for advice,” says Phil, “asking what he thought of a particular program, who might be good to play a certain piece. He was always extremely generous with his experience. It wouldn’t be putting it too strongly to say that I consider Paul a spiritual mentor to Chamber Music International.”

On Saturday, March 29, Paul will make a welcome return visit to Chamber Music International. He will be joining Jon Nakamatsu (piano,) Paul Coletti (viola,) Nathaniel Rosen and Jungshin Lim Lewis (cello,) John Scott (clarinet,) and Jeff Bradetich (double bass) at the new Eisemann Center for the Performing Arts for a concert of the works of Beethoven, Glazunov, and Schubert. It promises to be a truly special night of music, all the more because our dear friend Paul Rosenthal will be part of it.

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