A new, multinational jazz group has assembled to celebrate three important birthdays: San Antonio’s Tricentennial, the 20th anniversary of local nonprofit Musical Bridges Around the World, and the fifth year of its signature event, the International Music Festival.
The International Sister City Jazz Ensemble will perform a Saturday concert during the week-long festival, at 7:30 p.m. at the Empire Theatre. Members of the ensemble hail from San Antonio’s growing list of sister cities, including Chennai, India; Monterrey, Mexico; Darmstadt, Germany; and friendship city Tel Aviv, Israel.
“This is the first time we’ve done a sister city jazz ensemble,” said Suhail Arastu, development director of Musical Bridges. The ensemble was formed in part to celebrate Musical Bridges, but “also to celebrate the city’s Tricentennial, as we look back on our heritage and forward to our future in international relations.”
On Tuesday afternoon, ensemble musicians gathered at the Hotel Valencia downtown to rehearse. Present were flutist/saxophonist Anke Schimpf from Darmstadt, saxophonist Suzette Eises from Windhoek, Namibia, and Tomoko Sonoda from Kumamoto, Japan, on piano.
San Antonio composer and musician Aaron Prado, musical director for the performance, led the musicians through several tunes, along with his bassist father George (sitting in for Vico Diaz, arriving from Mexico later in the evening), and percussionist Brandon Guerra.
The visiting musicians each contributed a musical score from their own countries, Prado said, such as Diaz’s “La Brujula,” and “Lullaby of Itsuki“ featuring Sonoda’s piano. Prado composed a score especially for the occasion, titled “Sister Cities,” incorporating improvisational solos from each musician to add an international twist to jazz tradition.
“I wanted to create a structure open enough for the culture of each musician to come through, in a way meaningful to them,” Prado said.
As the rehearsal wrapped up in advance of more sister city performers arriving from Israel, India, Spain, and Mexico, Prado addressed the musicians. “Thank you for coming across the world to be with us,” he said.
“This really proves the universal language” of music, George Prado said as he packed up his bass.
If music is a universal language, Musical Bridges Around the World speaks it fluently. Over the five-year course of the International Music Festival, “unlikely and unique pairings” like an Israeli-Palestinian piano duo or a Ukranian vocalist with a Russian string quartet, Arastu said, “change peoples’ world views” and challenge preconceived notions.
That’s important to the mission of Musical Bridges, Arastu said. Music is “the heartbeat of humanity,” he said, and “no matter what your belief system or structure is, everybody can recognize beauty, and that’s what this International Music Festival is about.”
During Friday’s program, Musical Bridges will look toward its own future. A performance of Franz Liszt’s Hexameron, a score for two pianos and 12 hands, brings together six gold medalists from previous San Antonio International Piano Competitions (SAIPC).
“It’s going to be a really fun performance,” said Anya Grokhovski, founding director of Musical Bridges, not only for seeing the pianists perform three-to-a-piano, but also “because we want to start building excitement toward 2020,” the next year the quadrennial competition is held, she said.
Grokhosvski said the 2020 competition will mark the merger of Musical Bridges with the piano competition, with the contest renamed the Gurwitz San Antonio International Piano Competition, in honor of Ruth Jean Gurwitz, founder and former president of SAIPC.
Grokhovski said she hopes that in time, the competition will come to be known simply as “The Gurwitz.”
“We are, of course, honored and touched that the leadership of the organization has chosen to name the competition in my mother’s memory,” said Jonathan Gurwitz.
“I know that she would have been pleased,” Gurwitz said of Ruth Jean, who passed away in 2015. The merger advances two of his mother’s goals, “making San Antonio a destination for world-class musicians, and creating more opportunities for our homegrown talent,” Gurwitz said.
Another focus of the competition is to “democratize classical piano,” Grokhovski said, in particular to incorporate accompanists and instruments from various ethnic and folk traditions, including Middle Eastern percussion, woodwinds from Korea, and Galician bagpipes, she said. In the third of four competitive rounds, the pianists must perform with ensembles.
“The plan to incorporate world music into [the competition] is, I believe, unique among international piano competitions,” Gurwitz said, and will “certainly bring attention to the 2020 competition.”
On hand Tuesday afternoon to take the visiting sister city jazz musicians to lunch nearby, Arastu summed up the moment and the deeper mission of Musical Bridges: “The founder was a Russian Jew. I’m an Indian Muslim. We’re performing in a Catholic church. That’s America, right?”
All International Music Festival events are free and open to the public, taking place each evening through Saturday and Sunday afternoon, variously at San Fernando Cathedral and the Empire Theatre. Check the Musical Bridges website for times and locations.