Ben Breen and Yuliya Gorenman performing Violin Sonata No. 1 in D Major. (Photo by Mackenzie Fisher)

Ben Breen and Yuliya Gorenman performing Violin Sonata No. 1 in D Major. (Photo by Mackenzie Fisher)

Sitka Summer Music Festival: Classical music in ‘the crown jewel of Alaska’

The Sitka Summer Musical Festival has big dreams and they are taking actions to make them come true.

During the month of June, professional musicians take the time out of their busy schedules to flock to the Sitka Summer Music Festival and share their skill and love for what they do. This year the summer festival is commemorating the exchange of Alaska from Russia to the United States by celebrating four decades of Russian and American composers, like Tchaikovsky, Glazunov, Arensky, Taneyev, Shostakovich, Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev, John Corigliano, Phillip Glass, Michael Daugherty, and Amy Beach. The festival will have Russian born musicians Natasha Paremski, Yuliya Gorenman, and Nikita and Margarita Borisevich joining the ranks of the Sitka Summer Music Festival musicians. Also the Attaca Quartet, Paul Rosenthal and Navah Perlman return.

‘Shooting for the stars’

The Sitka Summer Music Festival was founded in 1972 by Paul Rosenthal and has taken great leaps in creating a sustainable organization that has no intention of slowing down.

Both Artistic Director Zuill Bailey and Executive Director Kayla Boettcher put in the necessary work to make the Sitka Summer Music Festival happen.

Boettcher’s job for the festival has her doing many tasks, from advertising, to securing venues, to lining up the stage crew or volunteers as well as taking care of all the fundraising and grant writing.

“It’s exciting, it’s definitely never a dull job,” Boettcher said.

Bailey first attended the festival in 2007 and in 2009, after being chosen by Rosenthal, began transitioning into the role of Artistic Director. In 2012 Rosenthal retired and Bailey officially took the position.

“The thing that I love most is that it brings the community together to celebrate the arts. Sitka is such an arts destination,” Bailey said. “Sitka is the crown jewel of Alaska. I’ve never had this feeling anywhere else. I’m involved in so many different projects, and it is just such a frenzy. This is my place to reboot. To refuel my human-tank.”

Bailey is a widely acclaimed cellist. Earlier this year, he won two Grammys for his work on “Daugherty: Tales of Hemingway.” His profile on the Sitka Summer Music Festival’s webpage states: “His rare combination of celebrated artistry and technical wizardry as well as his engaging personality has secured his place as one of the most sought after active cellists today.”

Bailey is also the Artistic Director for El Paso Pro Musica in Texas and the Northwest Back Festival in Spokane. The University of Texas at El Paso also has the privilege of having Bailey as the Professor of Cello.

“(Bailey) chooses the performers and the pieces we’re going to play and kind of sets the tone. And obviously the high caliber of our artists are under his discretion,” Boettcher said. Bailey also schedules rehearsals with the musicians and organizes community outreach events.

“Every festival is focused on the history of Alaska… It always changes yet it always kind of stays the same,” explained Bailey. “Each summer I spend more and more time here… There’s so much more. My first decade is behind me but I’m shooting for the stars.”

The Sitka Summer Music Festival runs for six days a week throughout the month of June and into July. “It’s a pretty cool year, it’s not just a summer festival,” said Boettcher. “In July we host a three week cello seminar where we bring ten college age pre-professional cellists here so they can have the opportunity to study intently.” Boettcher said the Sitka Summer Music Festival has received applications for their July cello seminar from 30 states and six other countries. Mellisa Kraut, a top-notch teacher from the Cleveland Institute of Music joins Bailey to help instruct during the cello seminar.

The Sitka Summer Music Festival presents a concert series in Anchorage during the months of September and February for two weeks and has been since the early 80’s.

“In production with the two week concert series in February we issue out musicians to three other locations to more rural Alaska,” Boettcher said. “They visit schools and have community performances.”

So far the festival has also traveled to Adak, Angoon, Bethel, Chevak, Cordova, Dillingham, Eagle River, Fairbanks, Gustavus, Haines, Homer, Hoonah, Hydaburg, Juneau, Kake, Kenai, Ketchikan, Kotzebue, Ninilchik, Nome, Pelican, Petersburg, Port Alexander, Selawik, Seldovia, Seward, Shemya, Skagway, Soldotna, Talkeetna, Tenakee Springs, Togiak, Unalaska, White Mountain and Yakutat.


The Stevenson Hall, originally owned by the Sheldon Jackson College, was purchased by the Sitka Summer Music Festival.

“We are in the midst of a capital campaign to raise the funds to fully restore and renovate (Stevenson Hall) so that it can be a comfortable year round facility” Boettcher said. “Right now its reasonable for the summer time and we house all our musicians here throughout the festival and the cello students will live here and it’s great throughout the summer time, easy living kind of stuff. But we would like to expand our programming and offer more classical music for more of Alaska throughout the year, and part of that is dependent on having a home base that people can feel comfortable living in during the winter months. So, some of that is about upgrading the heating systems insulating the building and our electrical system that is not adequate for our full needs.”

Concert fun

While Bailey plans the week he keeps in mind that free time is necessary for the musicians.

“There is certainly down-time that is unlike many other festivals,”Boettcher said. “It has always been an important part for Zuill.”

“Sitka is so beautiful, the wildlife, there’s so many aspects of Alaska that seem to be not touched by man. The community here seems to sustain themselves. They are such a tightly knit community, it’s very attractive. The people, the people here are my family. Again that kind of thing takes time. It’s a gift that I cherish,” said Bailey.

During the Bach’s Lunch event on Thursday the 15 of June, two artists, Ben Breen and Yuliya Gorenman admitted to going fishing the day before and jokingly asked for any mistakes from missed practice to be forgiven. Not a single note seemed out of place in Breen’s and Gorenman’s set where they performed Violin Sonata No. 1 in D Major. Breen promised the audience that “the big bad Beethoven” would be heard during their set, and from the positive response from the crowd it was easy to see that was accomplished.

Later Bailey and Susan Reed performed Concerto No. 1 in C Major with Bailey on cello and Reed on piano. Bailey commented before his performance that, “this (song) is in C major, it feels good on the hand to play and the audiences go berserk. It’s like opening a bottle of champagne. It’s a great piece. I hope you all enjoy it. Why would you ever play it in D major?”

Crowd members mentioned that it was “absolutely brilliant” and “just wonderful.” A standing ovation was given after both performances.

“It’s so fun to watch live because they are so interactive,” Boettcher said. “Bach’s lunch is pretty cool became it draws a really great crowd and thanks to our corporate sponsors we can have it for free.”

Other free events include their Tuesday Week in Preview and Wednesday Café Concert. They also have an evening concert both Friday and Saturday for $25 general admission, $20 for 65+ and members of the military, and $15 for youth and student tickets. They also have a special event every Sunday. For a full list of the events, go to:

“This festival, for Alaskans, is so personal to them. Its such an intimate musical form and it creates this family,” Boettcher said.

Sitka Summer Music Festival: Classical music in ‘the crown jewel of Alaska’
Zuill Bailey and Susan Reed perform Cello Concerto No. 1 in C major together at the Sitka Summer Music Festival. (Photo by Mackenzie Fisher)

Zuill Bailey and Susan Reed perform Cello Concerto No. 1 in C major together at the Sitka Summer Music Festival. (Photo by Mackenzie Fisher)

Executive Director Kayla Boettcher speaks at the Sitka Summer Music Festival. (Photo by Mackenzie Fisher)

Executive Director Kayla Boettcher speaks at the Sitka Summer Music Festival. (Photo by Mackenzie Fisher)

Odess Theater. (Photo by Mackenzie Fisher)

Odess Theater. (Photo by Mackenzie Fisher)

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