Kurt Baldwin is well-versed in the many ways of teaching music all over the country after doing so with his St. Louis-based string quartet for many years, but their trip to Juneau was his first exposure to violin lessons in the Tlingit language.
The cellist and the rest of The Arianna Quartet got the lesson visiting Sít’ Eetí Shaanáx-Glacier Valley Elementary School during the six-day Juneau Jazz & Classics, the first full staging of the annual festival in three years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The local youths being schooled on violin in the ways of the area’s Indigenous “People of the Tides” also made waves by performing a traditional Native song for the quartet during the 45-minute workshop.
“They felt like we were bringing them a gift by visiting with them, so they wanted to give us a gift, too,” Baldwin told a group of homeschool students, largely string players themselves, during a performance and workshop a short time later that day at Resurrection Lutheran Church.
That was far from the only unique musical medium of exchange between locals and the nearly 30 visiting musicians who spent more hours in off-stage community engagements than at concerts on the official schedule.
There were brass band instruments and lyrics being translated to sign language. Tales of whale sing-a-longs on the seas. Visiting bears being just one of the hairy situations calling for improvised blessings at a holy shrine. And Grammy-winning cellist Zuill Bailey, the festival’s artistic director, unexpectedly finding himself in a rocky situation explaining his “wide stance.”
For the visitors, an orchestra of natural elements along with the human ones made for a harmonious week.
“We love being up here the eagles, the glaciers that’s exotic for us,” Baldwin said.
For the locals, the visitors brought more than musical harmony after more than two years of pandemic-related isolation and distress.
“I was in schools all week watching how elementary schools break in half from the pandemic,” Bailey said. “It’s amazing really how the music and arts help us heal each other.”
Beyond just another manic Monday
The official festival schedule began, appropriately enough for Alaska’s capital city, in the State Office Building with a free noontime Brown Bag lunch concert for a crowd of more than 100 composed of a scattering of bureaucrats and a lot of young students.
The concert began in the same manner as official government meetings – and subsequently many other local events – have with an acknowledgment of being on Tlingit land, and how “for more than 10,000 years Alaska Native people have been and continue to be integral to the well-being of our community.”
With that U.S. Pacific Fleet’s Big Wave Brass Band, one of two visiting military ensembles, quickly journeyed to the modern era by whetting the youths’ musical appetites with a few rock/fusion takes on current radio songs. When they did return to the works some stereotype with a military troupe, band leader Chris Jerome explained they were “proudly bringing a bit of funk” to George Gershwin’s 1934 standard “Summertime” as an anticipatory tribute to the wildly and rapidly changing weather they would experience during the week.
“In Juneau it doesn’t get jazzier than this,” he said.
That musical transformation and the opening acknowledgement expressing thanks in Lingít weren’t the only translations during the show. Janet Olmstead, a longtime resident involved with missionary and education work, interpreted the spoken narratives and the multitude of instruments in sign language for a deaf student from Riverbend Elementary School (which in another trend honoring ancestral traditions taking place at local schools, may soon be renamed Kaxdigoowú Héen Elementary School).
“She can feel the music on the floor,” Olmstead said, referring to the girl a short distance away.
An entirely different experience in adapting to natural cultural elements awaited those venturing 20 miles north of downtown to the National Shrine of St. Therese overlooking Lynn Canal — where Olmstead was formerly a caretaker — for two scheduled performances by the The Arianna Quartet.
“Did you see the bears coming down here?” a passerby asked listeners walking down from the parking lot toward the 1930s stone chapel. In case they were newcomers, there was also the useful advice “when you see a bunch of cars by the side of the road that’s usually an indicator.”
Another surprise awaited inside the chapel, which Bailey found out about at 6:30 a.m., since two members of the quartet were stranded in Seattle due to airline snafus. As such, he opened the first performance alone on stage for what was a hastily rearranged collection of compositions performed with the two musicians who did arrive.
“I wanted to bless this place before we started,” Bailey said.
His solo was a piece by Bach, whom he said plays as part of his practice every day, although it was a new experience on this evening since “I’ve never heard the sound of this beautiful place.”
“When programming these concerts I really enjoy adding the aspects of something most of you didn’t know, including myself,” he quipped.
The rest of the set became a trio as John McGrosso on violin and Joanna Mendoza on viola took to the stage, while Baldwin’s cello and Julia Sakharova’s violin would need to wait for another day.
“They’re going to be amazed by the scenery here,” Mendoza said.
To keep the changes coming, McGrosso opened the evening’s second performance alone on stage, also expressing a fondness for Bach and how the master fit both into the multi-mood setting and dual classical/jazz theme of the festival.
“It’s not exactly jazz, but it is a kind of improvisation,” McGrosso said about his solo opening. “It’s very much like something Bach would make up as he was sitting at the organ.”
The same mixture of music and moods continued with a violin sonata by Beethoven, who McGrosso described as “a mountain unto himself” powerful grandeur, playfulness and scope.
“It’s hard to believe he hasn’t been here,” McGrosso said.
School’s in — and out
The quartet, now in full, continued its lessons at the elementary and graduate levels beginning the following day.
During the lunchtime performance for an audience again consisting mostly of elementary school students, Baldwin explained how the late Classical-era master Franz Schubert’s compositions are much like Juneau.
“It’s a little bit dark, it’s a little bit brooding, it’s a little bit intense, but it also gives you hope the sun might come out tomorrow,” Baldwin said.
There was also a math lesson, including how many strings in total are on quartet of four-string instruments (18 was the first guess), along with a bit of non-sex-ed human function to describe how the quartet performs as one.
“It’s a little like a body in that you have bones, you have muscles, you have skin and you have personality, and all these things work together,” Baldwin said.
For many of the youths it was also a literal lesson in the art of music. One class, after devouring their lunches, spent the performance drawing their visual interpretations of what they were hearing, resulting in pictures of everything from offbeat-color musicians to a rainbow of nature scenes.
The audience was sparser, but more appreciative on a mature level, during the quartet’s “Art of Ensemble” workshop that evening at The University of Alaska Southeast. A festival organizer, sharing impressions and photos on the event’s Facebook page describe it as “the perfect place to share…with budding ensembles and even aspiring solo musicians. Their skills are amazing, but their wisdom and heart to impart invaluable lessons was truly special.”
The workshops and educational performances ranged well beyond the quartet and local public schools. All of the festival’s artists spent considerable time at locations including the Juneau Pioneer Home, Bridge Adult Day Program, Johnson Youth Center and Juneau Youth Services’ residential facility.
The lessons for performers and audience alike were as varied as the venues and musical genres. At the Youth Services facility the U.S. Pacific Fleet Big Wave Brass Band got initially bashful youths in a dancing mood with horn-heavy renditions of Disney and other tunes, while Bailey during a visit to the Auke Bay Elementary School library delivered a lesson in “the power of sound” of an opposite sort.
“For the sake of experimentation, can you not move?” he asked.
The students gave an initial try, but some shifting and sniffling was still audible. Bailey cited it and again asked them to strive for absolute silence as he launched into four minutes of Bach’s famous “Suite No. 1 for Cello.”
The silence was imperfect after the first minute, but Bailey gave them high grades nonetheless.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a better audience than what you just did,” he said. “I was able to play really well because I was in my own vein and didn’t have to think about what was going on over there.”
A perhaps more relatable lesson came when Bailey explained the special all-black cello he brought to this performance — in contrast to the 1693 cello he played at the shrine and other more delicate venues – is made of carbon fiber.
“If you go to a sports car, a Ferrari or Corvette, or even Batman’s car that’s what is made of,” he said. “It’s very hard, very strong.”
That makes it an ideal musical match for the nature of Juneau, Bailey told the students.
“Later this afternoon when I’ll be playing downtown for people walking around I don’t have to worry about it raining,” he said.
All the whirled a stage
There were indeed plenty of sudden stops, camera phones, rounds of applause and congratulatory hugs from tourists and locals encountering Bailey performing under non-rainy skies near the food stands at the intersection of Franklin and Front streets during the late afternoon. Only a couple of hours later a couple hundred yards away there was another musical meshing as the newly opened Crystal Saloon hosted a “Classical Cocktails” performance by the The Arianna Quartet – and the results were anything but Last Frontier rowdy.
“This was a really great concert and a fantastic new, Cody venue,” Lon Garrison, a local schools administrator, wrote in a Facebook comment afterwards. “The sound was amazing.”
The following evening another mix-and-match adventure took to the stage as The “President’s Own” U.S. Marine Jazz Band hosted an open jam session following an hour-long Rush Hour concert at the Juneau Arts and Culture Center. Participation didn’t live up to its full potential with fewer than half of the dozen or so people in the audience signing up, likely due to an unexpected change in venue announced publicly only hours earlier. But there were still plenty of high notes beginning with the first signee requesting “Stella By Starlight” in the rather irregularly sharp key of F.
“These guys are good, we can do that,” Gunnery Sgt. (and tenor saxophonist) Steven Temme assured Sharon Schwab as she came onto the stage.
“What an opportunity,” she told the audience by way of introduction. “I’m in town visiting my daughter. I didn’t know this was happening, didn’t know anything about it, but I saw it online and had to come.”
Among the notable local signees was Jon Haywood on a 1940s alto sax the longtime resident has been playing since that era when he was in high school. He’s continued playing with various community musicians over the years including his current-day participation with the Juneau Big Band.
His rendition of Miles Davis’ “Four” was articulated in a clean workman’s tone completely at ease on its own and trading fours with Temme, and Haywood’s longtime care in all aspects of his instrument as evident in how he meticulously cleaned and dried the individual parts of the horn before protectively storing them in his case — resisting calls for an encore later during the evening.
Call it TGIF, casual Friday or whatever, but the final weekday lunch concert at the State Office Building was a train on an entirely different track.
Jane Bunnett, a veteran Canadian sax/flute player who’s won five of the country’s Juno awards on her own and with her all-female Afro-Cuban/jazz group Maqueque, proved among the festival’s most personable performers even in the crowded venues she filled during the day and evening. She talked the gathering of students to clap the classic five-stroke clave beat (“How are you? And good”), and then played the Pied Piper to coax most of the youths into a procession looping around the mounted standing brown bear and towering totem in the center of the space.
The festival mood by Maqueque continued during the evening at a jam-packed Centennial Hall, which Bunnett referred to as a raincheck gig since the group, like some others, were invited for the 2020 festival that had to be cancelled due to the pandemic. She said getting back to big-time road performances has meant busting out of more than just mundane moods.
“Getting out of flips-flops and getting into pants that fit” is a challenge after nearly three years, she told the crowd.
But the acclimation, including to new climates, is worth it, Bunnett continued.
“We woke up today and we had a dream we were looking at glaciers,” she said. “We’re going back tomorrow. We can’t get enough of those glaciers, I tell you.”
Rocking the boat
Bunnett’s group got an unexpected chance to see some of those glaciers at a distance Saturday evening when the band suddenly had to step in for one of the festival’s final improvisations, as illness kept the Phil Wiggins Blues House Party from being able to make it to the second of two two-hour music cruises scheduled during the festival’s final day. Their sundown party – sunset occurring just past the cruise’s midpoint at 9:16 p.m. — was preceded by Bailey playing a mid-afternoon cello concert that in its way turned into hard rock.
Bailey was midway through a piece on his 1693 cello when a large ship passed the tour boat idling a few hundred yards off Fritz Cove, with the resulting waves sending everyone aboard including him into a sudden brace.
“I wasn’t quite sure I was going to take this beast out of the case,” he told the audience after finishing the piece without pause. “I was kind of regretting it during the waves. That was the first time I’ve played where I thought ‘Oh my God, what is happening?’”
Still, as a longtime performer Bailey said he’s used to “looking at danger,” so “my legs went out like a sumo wrestler, but I practice for that.”
In contrast to his request for absolute silence from elementary students a couple of days earlier, he said he accepted the ongoing boat engine roar and other sounds without allowing it to affect how and what he performed. Instead, it became part of a “multi-sensorial” experience including the smell of oil and other elements “I will never forget.”
The many elements perceivable of the senses were also memorable to many in the audience, who found themselves at one point distracted by whale sightings off to one side of the boat. But for Elizabeth Selfridge, a Juneau resident for more than 50 years and longtime festival fan, it was an interactive part of the concert.
“The whales love cello and they come up singing,” she asserted.
Also making the entire experience for unforgettable for Bailey in his role as artistic director for the first time was a fuller sense of belonging to the community after performing in Juneau and Sitka for many years.
“I played in CarnegieHall two or three weeks ago,” the three-time Grammy winner said. “It was great – for my career – but I looked out and I didn’t know anybody.”
But when Linda Rosenthal, who founded Juneau Jazz & Classics in 1997, and other festival officials asked about his expanding his role this year there was a sense of homecoming.
“When Linda and company asked if I would entertain the possibility of spending more time doing this it was the greatest thrill because I’ve gotten to know so much better a family I’ve known for 12 years,” he said.
• Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at email@example.com.