Anya Grokhovski is the CEO and Artistic Director of Musical Bridges Around the World a 501(c)(3) dedicated to sharing music through education and performances in and around San Antonio. She is a classically trained and educated musician herself. She is funny, charming and well worth your time.
Justin: Hello and Bienvenidos, San Antonio. Welcome to the Alamo Hour, discussing the people, places, and passion that make our city. My name is Justin Hill, a local attorney, a proud San Antonion, and keeper of chicken and bees. On the Alamo Hour, you’ll get to hear from the people that make San Antonio great and unique and the best-kept secret in Texas. We’re glad that you’re here.
Welcome to the Alamo Hour, today’s guest is Anya Grokhovski. She’s the artistic director and CEO of Musical Bridges Around The World. She herself is a very accomplished pianist. I think you have a PhD in music or piano?
Anya Grokhovski: DMA, Doctor of Musical Arts.
Justin: Similar, I’ve got a doctorate in jurisprudence, but nobody calls me doctor. Anya started Musical Bridges Around The World, which really sounds like just your passion project and your attempt to share your love of music, and bring a really different style and quality of music to our city.
Anya: Yes. That is all.
Justin: Thank you for being here. I want to talk about Musical Bridges. I want to talk about your history as a musician and also in bringing this to our city and all of the events that you’ve put on. It’s beautiful, what you’re doing from children all the way through to older people. You’ve got a program for everybody and we’re going to talk about that. I start this little getting to know you so we’re going to go through our top 10 questions that I ask a bunch of people. They change a little bit but a lot of them are the same. You mentioned it already, what kind of pets do you have?
Anya: I have two large dogs.
Justin: How large? Great Dane large?
Anya: No, not quite as large but pretty large [chuckles]. I’ve got German Shepherd and I got a mutt, when we got him from the [unintelligible 00:01:58], we hoped that he will be a golden retriever, but he turned out to be made out of parts of different dogs and he’s the sweetest thing you can imagine.
Justin: What are their names?
Anya: The mutt is Duke and the german shepherd is Lexi.
Justin: I grew up and I had a golden retriever named Duchess.[laughter]
Anya: They’re related [laughs].
Justin: Duchess had puppies with a dog named Duke at one point in life so it comes full circle. Now, with COVID, it’s a little bit different but what are some of your favorite spots to eat at, and now it’s almost what are your favorite spots to get takeout out at?
Anya: I’m really big fan of ethnic food. Every time I can get excuse to go to Indian restaurant, I will. I just recently ate again in Indian Palace. I love them. There is Afghani restaurants and there are all kinds of restaurants. There’s no Russian restaurant, unfortunately, in San Antonio and it’s crossed my mind maybe in my next life I would open one [laughs].
Justin: I don’t want to be insensitive but are Russians known for their cuisine?
Anya: Yes, it’s a very good cuisine. In general, Russian culture was very influenced by French culture. The Russian ethnic food is based on vegetables and famous borscht, I even made video of me making borscht because people been asking me for years, “Anya, how do you make that famous borscht,” so I made a video of that.
Justin: I love borscht and I love beef.
Anya: I’ll share it with you. I’ll share the video.
Justin: Then, I think, caviar too for whatever reason when I think of the Russian cuisine.
Anya: Caviar is a good stuff too.
Justin: Indian Palace is your favorite Indian spot in town?
Anya: It is, yes and I am not getting paid for this promotion [laughs].
Justin: Neither of us are.[laughter]
Justin: You’ve lived in San Antonio a while, how long?
Anya: Oh, I came here in ’91.
Justin: What are some of your favorite hidden gems? When I have people come to town, the Alamo and those things are great but I tell them, the Botanical Gardens are– If you live here, you probably go the further down Missions. I didn’t go for 10 years to see the other Mission. What are some of your favorite hidden gems in the city?
Anya: When we bring guest artists from all over the world, we show them around and it helps for us. I’ve been here for a very long time. It helps me to look at San Antonio through their eyes which is very interesting. We always take people to McNay Art Museum. I think this is absolutely fabulous, fabulous place in San Antonio. We take, of course, Riverwalk and Pearl but where I would lately started to take people to, is wineries around Texas.
We get all these musicians from France and Italy and they’re all cocky about their food and wine and all that. We’ll say, “Wait a minute. Let’s try some Texas wines.” I think that’s a hidden gem, still, actually the Texas Hill Country with [crosstalk]
Justin: Have they liked the Texas Hill Country wines?
Anya: They say they do. I don’t think they have choice when we take them around [laughs] but I do. I think this is great wine and overall the situation is just [crosstalk]
Justin: The experience is fun.
Anya: The experience is fun, yes. Absolutely, and we’re so close to this. It’s fabulous.
Justin: I was just talking to my wife. It’s going to be a good, get out of the house, pretty safe trip, and we’re going to go up there and do that. I haven’t done in years. It’s different now than it used to be. I have a bunch of friends that worked in the restaurants in San Antonio, who are now up there working in wineries.
Anya: You’ll be surprised, they’re just growing. It used to be 48 wineries, I think they doubled right now.
Justin: Is that right. The state of Texas gives them a lot of support to open wineries, the Go Texan stuff. We have nine appellations in Texas. The state’s done a really good job to encourage that kind of wine tourism. You’re a musician, obviously, do you have any other hobbies?
Anya: Oh, I have too many hobbies, for normal human being [laughs].
Justin: Any odd hobbies?
Anya: I don’t know how odd but I’m a good cook. I like to cook. I had different hobbies in different periods of my life. I used to sew, I even used to sew for living when I was in Russia, and then somehow that was over, then, I was doing ceramic for a while. My latest hobby is interior design. I just remodeled my house, I’m still recuperating. I’m going to survive the next five years. It’s like PTSD after a while, but it’s very rewarding, and it’s a great opportunity to exercise the interior design aspirations.
Justin: What’s your favorite type of cuisine to cook?
Anya: Probably Italian more than the French I would say. I like clean products. I don’t like to overwork whatever I work with [laughs]. We have this series of home concerts and for many years, I used to cater, pretty much myself so [laughs] that was interesting experience as well.
Justin: I keep saying I’m going to learn how to cook ossobuco, I still have not learned. I feel like it can’t be that difficult, but I still haven’t tried to really do it.
Anya: I’m sure it’s not. I’ve done it once or twice.
Justin: What’s your favorite Fiesta event?
Anya: I’m embarrassed to say, but I’m not very much into Fiesta.
Justin: Okay, but you’ve been to some events if you’ve been here since ’91?
Anya: Yes, I’ve been to some events. The biggest event I’ve been to was the flower parade. I believe it was nice and interesting but overall, I’m not the crowd kind of girl. I like to stay quiet [laughs] which is weird because I run performing arts organisation [laughs].
Justin: I’m not a big crowd person either. Have you been to the Arts fair at the Southwest School of Arts?
Anya: Yes, I have and I love that school.
Justin: If you get there early, the event’s great. It’s not packed, by four or five, it starts getting pretty packed but early on it’s great. It’s one of my, if not my favorite event. You’re a classically-trained musician, you’re obviously into classical music, but what do you listen to in your car? Do you have guilty music pleasure?
Anya: I do, my favorite actually is Bossa Nova. I think in my previous life maybe I was Brazilian [laughs] I don’t know [crosstalk].
Justin: I didn’t know, I thought you’d say rap or something.[laughter]
Anya: No, I didn’t go that far yet. Bossa Nova touches some strings in me I didn’t know existed.
Justin: I think that’s fair. We’ve touched on it but you’re a classically-trained musician. You’ve toured all over the world is my understanding, talk to me about you come from a family of musicians. Give us a little background of how you got into music in such a sort of in-depth way?
Anya: I was born and raised in Soviet Union, for the starters. My father was the violinist in Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra all his life. My mother is a violinist as well and she was a renowned teacher in Russia, as well as she played in the musical theaters in the orchestras. As far as I remember myself, I was always backstage in an orchestra or in a symphony, so that was really not a matter of choice for me to become a musician.
We have this going joke in the family that two violinists needed [unintelligible 00:09:44] that’s why they took me to a music school. I started my piano lessons when I was five. Nobody asked if I want to do it. Nobody asked if I have talent. Nobody asked this, whatever. It was what I was supposed to be doing and that’s what I did.
Justin: You hear everything about how it was grown up over there, but was that your education was music, or did you go to school all day like you would in America, and then music after school?
Anya: Yes. I went to public school just normal school in the morning. Then I went to music school three times a week since it was socialism, things were costing next to nothing, practically free. I had my piano lessons twice a week. I also had [unintelligible 00:10:32] and choir and music theory and whatever. They really have that system there working well. That’s why Russia is still producing enormous amount of fabulous musicians.
Justin: How long was your father with the Moscow Philharmonic?
Anya: For 45 years.
Justin: Wow. That’s a pretty competitive thing, right, to become–
Anya: Oh yes. I think he got there. He played auditions for like 10 times to get in the orchestra. That was very competitive. That was a totally different life than what normal Soviet people would experience because he was traveling all the time with the orchestrate at a time when we lived in a closed country, nobody knew anything about the West. It was pre-internet time. You remember that time?
Anya: He had seen the entire world, really, where majority of Russians only saw what they’ve been shown on TV.
Justin: Did you live in Moscow?
Anya: Yes, we lived in Moscow.
Justin: Did you get to travel with him when you were a kid or did y’all have to stay put?
Anya: No, we had to stay put. I know for Americans it’s really hard to understand, but it was impossible to travel or to leave the country or nothing because you needed exit visa. Now I think Russians only need entrance visa to the country they go to all the time. I have this funny story. I don’t know how funny, it’s funny now. When I was a teenager, my mother was going to go to Bulgaria for vacation. She wanted to take me with her and it was part of the group too. It was not like you’re just going wild to the wild West and stuff.
In order for her to take me, I needed to get permission from the college I was in. The college called me to the meeting of a communist leadership, and I was not really into communist, more politics in general at the time. They asked me why I’m not member of the [unintelligible 00:12:31], which was the step on the way to. I said, “Well, I wasn’t invited.” They thought that it was politically not savvy answer and they did not sign my papers and I’ve never went to Bulgaria. The first country I came to actually was United States when I was 29, before that I never left Russia.
Justin: It’s funny hearing you went to vacation in Bulgaria because it’s not known as a grand vacation destination these days, but [unintelligible 00:13:00] limited right?
Anya: Bulgari actually has– I’ve never been to Bulgaria to this day, but I’ve heard that they have beautiful beaches and the sea. For Soviets, that was the place to go at the time. I was not even able to do that because, at the time, I didn’t know how to say right things in the right time. I made a lot of progress since then.
Justin: Even though it was within the iron curtain, as we called it, even though it was within that, you’ll still had to get special permission to travel within?
Anya: Yes. [unintelligible 00:13:31]
Justin: I went to law school with a guy who’s from Bulgaria and his parents hid under a raft and floated down a river to get out of Bulgaria and they’re Americans now. It was a wild story he told me about his parents, different time. Were you there when the wall fell?
Anya: No. I was already in the United States. I came to US with my ex-husband and my son, in exchange program. That was the first time I left Russia and it was ’89. The wall fell in ’91. We were driving from Illinois in the car to San Antonio when we already were moving here and then the car we were listening, the reports from Moscow were like shooters were on the roofs, and gangs were coming down the streets. I remember there was absolutely surreal feeling.
Justin: Was it emotional for you?
Anya: Yes. Although by now I’ve spent most of my life here already, I’m more American than Russian. Still, I grew up in that country, I know the culture, I know the people, and every time something goes wrong, I do take it personally.
Justin: At the time when the wall fell, you hadn’t been here all that long?
Anya: No, I just came. I was worried about people, tanks in Moscow, I’ve never seen– I only seen tanks on TV in my life. The streets where I went to school there were tanks, they were showing and talking, CNN was on the roof somewhere. It was still pretty bad. Now looking back, I believe it was a good thing that it happened, but that was pretty scary.
Justin: Tons of uncertainty too at that point. You became an accomplished pianist while you were in Russia or the Soviet Union at the time. Talk to me, you went to school for piano, but then did you, at some point break from schooling and just take up piano, or was it all school, all piano until you were done?
Anya: The system there is like you go to public school and then you enter what’s here would considered to be a magnet school or college from 15 to 19, so I did that. Then there’s master degree, which is five years in Russia, so I did that. Then there’s doctorate separately. I did everything up to my doctorate and then we immigrated to United States.
I did doctorate later, already after I’d been in the United States for a while. I did it in Russia mainly because I chickened out, I didn’t think my English would be good enough to go through doctorate here at the time, so I went back and did doctorate there.
Justin: Some of the stuff provided by Rudy, who’s a mutual friend of ours and a PR extraordinaire in this city who could be, he’s just so calm about it. He’s so good at what he does. Some of the stuff he told me was you did a lot of touring around the world yourself as a pianist. Was that in your Soviet time or was that once you were in the United States?
Anya: That was once I was already in the United States. In Soviet Union still, I lived at a time where things were not possible. The only way pianists could go to the West if they take part in a competition or something, that has to be sanctioned by the government as well.
Justin: Was there a real fear that if they let y’all go that y’all were just not coming back?
Anya: I think so, yes. My dad traveled with his orchestra and they always had couple of KGB guys with them.
Justin: Is that right?
Anya: Absolutely, yes. They knew they probably carried a little something in their pockets, but they were young KGB dudes, orchestra had 50 people, so maybe like five to seven KGB guys.
Justin: I assume there’ll be in part of the Moscow Philharmonic meant that he was provided some creature comforts that normal citizens were not. I doubt he was having to stand in the bread line because that was a pride of the Soviet Union, wasn’t it, so they were probably taken care of pretty good?
Anya: I think that the main difference was that they were able to travel and see the world. They also were able to bring things like where I was telling the story to my friends, they can believe it here. If you see the line, you’ll go to the end of the line. When you get closer, you’ll find that what is it they selling? Then whatever it is they selling and no matter what size it is, you just buy it.
He was traveling, he was bringing clothes and little souvenirs. I tried Coca-Cola for the first time when I was like 13. There was no Coca-Cola in Russia, you can imagine. There was some privileges in that. Also, it was a wonderful life. He loved his work. He loved music, he loved orchestra. I think he was a happy man. He just passed away two years ago.
Justin: The stories he has I’m sure were just incredible. You came over, how old were you when you came to the States?
Anya: I was 29.
Justin: You came over on an exchange program?
Anya: Yes. My ex-husband Valery Grokhovski is a very accomplished pianist and he played both jazz and classics, and so we were invited, he was actually invited. My son and I came as a second suitcase with him pretty much. He was invited through IX which International Xchange Organization. We were the first ones probably after the cold war, whatever, which came in the arts and culture area as an exchange people.
We came to Bloomington-Normal, Illinois to university there where he was teaching and playing. We really, at the time I came, I knew two words in English. I totally could not understand what’s happening in general for a very long time. I remember the first time we went to Walmart, then I thought I’m going to have a fit [unintelligible 00:19:31]. Walmart was absolutely amazing level of luxury.
Justin: I have a friend who lives in Manhattan and first time he walked into a Walmart with me, he was awestruck and he’s in the United States. It’s its own animal, Walmart is. You came over and then, by way of what did you end up in San Antonio?
Anya: We were applying for jobs. I came with the notion that I’m not going back to Russia. I decided
probably because my father was traveling and I’ve heard the stories, and I definitely idealized the West. Now I know that for sure. [laughs] I knew that I’m not coming back. I’ll find a way to stay.
I started accompanying [unintelligible 00:20:16] and got a couple of students while he was working. Then when this exchange was over, we needed to decide. He said he’s going back to Russia because he’s not going to do any kind of secondary jobs or anything. He was a big star. I just said that I’m willing to wash dishes or do whatever it takes, but I want to stay here.
Justin: Is that right?
Anya: Yes. [chuckles] I made some good friends in Illinois while we were there, and they taught me how people find jobs in this country. I didn’t know how, so they said, “You have to look in certain publications and if there’s openings, you have to apply.” I didn’t have enough English to do that. I always was good at making friends and people always helped me in my life.
They helped me. I applied for 25 different positions for my ex-husband. The San Antonio UTSA responded that they would like to invite him for interview. I remember I’m calling him to Russia, I said, “Val, you are invited for interview.” He said, “What is interview? What do I need to do?” [chuckles] That’s how we ended up in San Antonio. He was given this position after he interviewed and performed here. In ’91 we moved to San Antonio because of that.
Justin: Did you stay in Illinois when he went back to Russia?
Justin: You helped him find this job in San Antonio, he came down, and what did you do?
Anya: I did it more for me than for him. [laughs]
Justin: What did you do in San Antonio when you first moved here?
Anya: I’m a pianist, so I started accompanying and performing. Then I played in Most Happy Fella in Josephine Theater, with Mark [unintelligible 00:21:57]. I don’t know if you remember Mark [unintelligible 00:21:59] passed away.
Justin: I don’t.
Anya: Then UTSA opened the accompanist position for me. I worked at UTSA for three or four years after that as well.
Justin: What does that mean, an accompanist position? What do you do?
Anya: It means you play piano for singers, for choirs, for musicals, for guest artists, for whoever needs a pianist. You’d been given a piece of paper and said, “Go play it.” [laughs] That’s what you do.
Justin: You didn’t need to speak good English.
Anya: Yes, by then I already started to figure out what’s going on.
Justin: How long were you doing the accompany work with UTSA?
Anya: I think I was there for four years. I liked UTSA and its great people, but it was not a right job for me overall. I have this entrepreneurial spirit about me. That job description really, you have to be more of a follower than the leader. By that time, I’ve built such a huge teaching practice for myself so I just went and quit.
Justin: Okay, and just taught piano?
Anya: Just taught piano for a while. Then Musical Bridges was born after that as well.
Justin: Somewhere along the line though, you got a doctorate in musical arts. Where does that fit in here?
Anya: Yes. What year was that? I was 35, I think. I went back to Russia, but it’s not a residence program. I had to fly there to take my tests and exams and take lessons. It took me three years. I started it when I was 35 and I was done by 38, I guess.
Justin: You’d have to go back physically to take any of the tests?
Justin: I’m sure it sounds dumb, but is the testing in that world, how much of that testing is actually you at a piano?
Anya: You play at recitals. You have to play concert for the faculty and you better do well there. [laughs]
Justin: I assume they’re very exacting people at that level.
Anya: Yes. It was pretty nerve-wracking, but I mostly did this doctorate because I need it for myself versus any kind of job opportunity because I wanted to learn more repertoire, I wanted to make sure I’m current and I’m professional level I thought I am. It’s like a boot camp pretty much, for three years.
Justin: Do you play other instruments?
Anya: No, I don’t. [crosstalk] sometime.
Justin: Did your parents play other instruments?
Anya: No. In this classical music world, you normally spend 10 hours on one instrument. There’s really no room for [crosstalk]
Justin: I mean people who double in other things. I don’t know, if you play the violin, can you also play the cello? I don’t know if strings are that similar or not.
Anya: I think some people can. I think you have to have that freedom, this talent to be free, which I totally don’t. [laughs]
Justin: You’ve traveled around the world playing as well. How many countries have you played in?
Anya: I can’t just tell you right away how many, maybe seven. Now Europe is EU, so it’s all like one country.
Justin: Yes, but not Britain. They decided to do their own thing. Musical Bridges Around The World, it’s your thing, right?
Anya: Yes, it somehow started by chance, really. If somebody would tell me when I hardly spoke English, many years ago that this is what it’s going to become, I probably would not start it, because I probably would think, “Oh, there’s no way I can pull it off.” When I left UTSA I was depressed, it was a dark time in my life and stuff. I wanted to invite my teacher, who I studied with and who I adored and who made a lot of influence on my professional life.
I thought, I’ll invite him to San Antonio and show him around. At the time he lived in Montenegro out of all places. We decided he’s going to come in the spring and the conversation was in the fall. To help pay his airfare, I contacted Mexican Cultural Institute so they would put concert for him. He would play a concert, we would collect tickets and it would pay for his airfare. That was decided. Then he didn’t call and didn’t call. He didn’t have a phone number even. I know, that was different time.
Justin: Was this when Serbia and Montenegro and all them were in their own wars?
Anya: Yes. Because we’re talking what year? We’re talking ’98. That was a long time ago.
Justin: I remember seeing Slobodan Milosevic on the news a lot back then, just because the name as a kid stuck in my head.
Anya: Anyway, he didn’t call, didn’t call, and then suddenly he calls me and tells me, “Anya, I’m flying next week.” I didn’t confirm any concerts, nothing, so I’m calling Mexican Cultural Institute and asking, “People, do you remember we have dates with you in the [unintelligible 00:27:26]?” They said, “No, you didn’t confirm. We gave the date away.” We were both musicians. It’s not like we had a lot of extra cash, [laughs] [unintelligible 00:27:35].
I was in shock. At the time, I had a lot of private students. Some of them [unintelligible 00:27:41] physicians. I remember one, this Jen comes to a lesson, and I’m just telling her, “Jen, the horrible situation had happened. My teacher is coming. We need to pay his airfare.” She said, “Oh, don’t you worry, we’ll have a house concert for him.” She called a couple of her friends, physicians, and we had a house concert for him.
They wrote a letter to their friends, “Anya’s teacher is coming, we need help to pay airfare,” and whatever. People were coming to me at the concert with little bums of cash and said, “Anya, do need more money to pay for your teacher?” This literally how Musical Bridges was born. He played at the house and people loved this, “Oh, let’s bring another teacher, let’s have another one.”
We brought another one. Then the group of women. One turned out to be a lawyer. It’s always good to have a lawyer in the team. She said, “Why don’t we get incorporated?” I didn’t know what that meant either. [laughs] That’s how we were born. We got incorporated. Another was CBH, said, “No, we need 501(c)(3).” Okay. She did 501(c)(3) application. That was 24 years ago.
Justin: You don’t have to tell me the people, but what part of town was the first house that had the first concert?
Anya: It was at the Dominion.
Justin: All right. How many people attended?
Anya: I would say maybe 50.
Justin: Nice, small, private concert.
Anya: Yes. We still do those. Now we do them for members.
Justin: It sounds like you were going to bring great music to San Antonio, and then through your connections, a nonprofit was born. It started as house concerts. How has this grown? Now it’s kind of a monster. Now you’ve got lots of activities and different events. How did it grow to what it is now?
Anya: After this house concert, at some event, we met Father David Garcia from San Fernando Cathedral. He was, “Oh, girls, you are musicians.” He said, “It was my dream to have concerts at San Fernando Cathedral on Sunday nights, because nothing is happening in this city. Why don’t we do that?” He was really easygoing and he
still is, we’re still communicating.
It was really his invitation and his encouragement that took us from private small residences into community. We started concerts at San Fernando Cathedral two years after we formed, and we started with 12. I remember Maya Greenberg called me when she saw announcement and said, “Anya, what’s your budget for 12 concerts?” I told them honestly that I didn’t know what budget was. Mostly were local musicians UTSA musicians, some friends who were passing by, and my family, the whole family.
We did 12 concerts, we charged $5 at the door at the cathedral, and even that would, later on, became a problem. Later we decided to go free, but that was the first big series. Then for the school concerts, we started first small concerts at Mexican Cultural Institute, but it has a very small hall there, and we started with classical music for children. In about a year, I figured that that’s not really working. Neither the space, neither the programming. The space was too small to make some significant impact.
To do classical music for children, there has to be a lot of prep work for that in order to make impact. At the time, we moved from classical music into the realm of ethnic music of different cultures, and we really feel that we were really addressing a great need of schools. There’s a lot of children especially in constituency reserve which is mostly south side. They don’t travel much, so they don’t know much about the world. The world looks scary on TV. Once you turn the news on, geez, that’s a very scary world.
We’re bringing musicians, ex-pats from different countries, and costumes, playing funky instruments, talking different words and different languages, and that’s how Kids to Concerts was born. We were reaching a lot of students, a lot like 150 schools a year or something like that.
Justin: Was that a partnership with SAISD?
Anya: We would partner with the schools. Right now, we have a staff person who is educational director, and he is the one who schedules concerts, but I think mostly, we work with southwest ISD, with San Antonio ISD, with pretty much all the ISDs including Devine. It’s 24 years later from the inception of the organization but now this year, we had to go virtual because of the pandemic.
Now our program is really popular all over Texas. Even we just got inquiries somewhere from Kentucky that they want to look at our curriculum and stuff. Now after that, we added curriculum. We really grew, our main constituents are actually children right now.
Justin: Okay, because of the pandemic or just that’s where you’ve grown to overall?
Anya: Overall, but because of pandemic we were able to go outside the city of San Antonio because of pandemic, because we moved, we have all educational materials in the curriculum. Everything is available online now, which we can send you a link if you would like to–
Justin: Yes. You’re going to share some videos too that I’m going to put up. How are the acoustics in San Fernando?
Anya: It has its challenges but overall, it is such a special place to perform.
Justin: Yes, it’s beautiful, but I remember I was at a wedding and it was just really hard to hear anything in there.
Anya: We’re trying to program acoustic music there. If you’re not amplifying anything, it sounds good because musical instruments sound good but the challenge is when you’re starting amplifying things. That creates a mess because they have their own system built in, and if you’re doing something else, it’s just terrible.
Justin: Anyway it’s so long ago, that wasn’t probably much of a concern when they built it. Let’s walk through some of the events you’re on. Is the musical evenings at San Fernando going to come back or is it back yet?
Anya: So far, we’re doing it virtually. This season we have one concert left and it’s going to be virtual, but yes, we’re planning a very lavish season next year. We hope to be back at the cathedral, we hope people will come back. We probably will provide masks at the door just in case if somebody feels uncomfortable, but we’re planning five concerts next year and we’re signing contracts right now, and I’m very excited. We just visited the cathedral a couple of days ago, it almost brought tear to my eye because we miss the cathedral so much.
Justin: Those are all free now, right?
Anya: Yes. All the programming we do for the public is free.
Justin: The San Fernando’s evenings, does that music have some sort of– Is it all classical or is it a mix of whatever musicians you can get to come?
Anya: It’s a mix, yes. The way we do programming, it’s all a reflection of our mission which is– I can tell you the mission, which is to transform lives through multicultural performing in visual arts programming by shattering stereotypes, inspire– Let me see. What is it we inspire? [laughs] Togetherness, and provide hope for those with least access. We have very long and [unintelligible 00:35:41][laughter]
Anya: Anyway, when we plan the season, we want to make sure we’ll bring representatives from different cultures because that is a core of our mission. We present it for free, it’s free and open to the public. We want to make sure everybody can attend if they want to.
Justin: All events aren’t free, are they, or are all?
Anya: All public events. We do have fundraiser of course, and we have a membership series which you have to be a member to attend, but public. Among all the public things we do is Russell Hill Rogers musical evenings in San Fernando Cathedral, international music festival, Gurwitz International Piano Competition which take place once every four years, Golden Age program for seniors, and two educational programs for children. One is Kids to Concerts, another, Musical Sprout.
Justin: Rudy provided me some of this. Kids to Concerts, community engagement program that introduces children K to 12 and Title I schools annually, to different cultures music, and dance which you’re right. There’s so many areas in town that, even outside of the pandemic, don’t get exposure, kids that don’t get exposure to different musics and different cultures. That’s fantastic.
Musical Sprouts, original education program, measuring the impacts of STEM plus arts, he called it STEAM curriculum. Basically, the science technology education music programming being introduced to children in the school setting. I didn’t know about this, but you all have something called Golden Age. Talk about that.
Anya: Some seniors have hard time getting somewhere from the senior homes, so we take programs to them. In a given year, we do about 35 performances in different senior centers and communities. It’s one of the special programs we do. Those are mostly classical because that population really responds well to classical music, and we hope to be back. This year, everything is in lockdown.
Justin: How many performances are y’all responsible for a year with all of the different programs y’all do, do you think?
Anya: About over 100.
Justin: How many of those musicians are going to be local musicians?
Anya: Local, not that many. Most of the musicians are abroad. Sometimes we do collaborations, we invite a couple of musicians from the symphony and add some people from out of town, or quite often, we invite local jazz musicians and mix them with some people from out of town, but because of the nature of our mission, if we’re doing multicultural performances from all over the world, they call for ex-pats.
Justin: My introduction to Musical Bridges outside of Rudy was the international music festival. This is multi-week, I couldn’t remember how long it went on but it was just a series of very accomplished musicians. At that time, most of them were taking part at the Tobin if I recall, but I know there were also, throughout the city, different locations. Is that the capstone or the big event y’all put on every year?
Anya: Yes. International music festival takes place once a year. Only on the years when we do Gurwitz International Piano Competition, it replaces the festival. Once every four-year. The first festival, we had, we had Israeli-Palestinian piano duo, we had very controversy groupings of musicians because we even thought we will call festival music without borders, but then it turned out that somebody else has this name and we were almost [crosstalk] for that.
We didn’t so we had to drop that, but that was pretty much the idea, yes. For a festival to show cultures which normally don’t communicate well especially on the TV news which we’re getting, but in real life when you put real human faces on the people, they do just fine in a creative setting.
Justin: It probably
doesn’t get talked about enough, but we have used sports and arts as a means to diplomacy forever in the United States. Even ping pong diplomacy, that was opening up China through ping pong but music is always and arts have been one of those things we’ve always exchanged with countries even we don’t get along with. It’s great that you’re accentuating that in this international Music Festival this past year, or was it the– It was 2018 when y’all had the last Gurwitz. Is that right?
Anya: No Gurwitz was in 2020. We were so lucky. We had it right before the pandemic here.
Justin: All right. I remember it because wasn’t David Robinson somehow involved?
Anya: Yes. He was chairman of the Committee.
Justin: Talk to us about that, because that was a very unique event y’all were putting on and I looked up some of the musicians. Talk about who y’all were able to bring in, and it was a competition, right.
Anya: Right, yes. It’s a separate story. San Antonio had International Piano Competition. It’s organization which existed for 32 years. About five years ago, they called me and took me to lunch and asked me, if Musical Bridges would consider to absorb them because they were all-volunteer organization. They were getting up in years, and it’s hard to run. They came to me because I’m a pianist. They trusted that I won’t let it die because I see value in the Piano Competition.
Our board of directors talked to their board of directors for some time. Then we took it on, which was a huge, huge undertaking. The first competition we produced was in 2020. We renamed it after Ruth Jean Gurwitz, who was acting president and a supporter of the International Piano Competition for like over 20 years. Doing that myself for most of the best years of my life. I feel it’s good to be recognized and we wanted the competition carry her name.
We jumped like in the winter, you jump in the cold water with this, we jump and hope for the best and it turned out fabulous. We had 76 applicants from 21 country applying to participate. Preliminary judges which were consisted out of local professors of Texas universities, selected 12 finalists who had to fly to San Antonio to compete live.
We had judges, very reputable panel of judges, which was headed by Sebastian Lang-Lessing who was our Director of San Antonio Symphony. We had first round in Trinity University. Then we had second-round in Trinity. Third round, we had at [unintelligible 00:42:56] theatre, and the finale was San Antonio Symphony at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.
Justin: How did it work tournament-wise. At the first round did all 12 play and then six moved on.
Anya: Yes. That’s exactly how it works. The first one they could play whatever they want to play free program for an hour each. Second round, we actually decided, because our mission really drives our programming of Musical Bridges, we had tried to figure out how can we marry purely classical competition with our mission, which is not really classical. We don’t associate ourselves with anyone direction in music.
We came up with this, I think, brilliant idea that for the second round, we wanted all the participants to play a lightning piece as a necessary part of the repertoire to celebrate San Antonio make-up. Third round was absolutely unique because we commissioned piece to UTSA composer Ethan Wickman, which would be written for piano into world music instruments. Those world music instruments were musicians from Silk Road Ensemble from New York, which is Yo-Yo Ma Silk Road Ensemble, which is a very famous group.
That piece was written in such a way that it’s allowed pianist as well as other musicians to improvise, which is a big no, no, in classical music of this day, unfortunately. We had the piano players to create their own cadenza. They had to play a little part of that piece, which they composed, or they were improvising on the spot. That was really, really unique, which really sets our competition apart from all other international competitions in the world.
Justin: Did they get all the music beforehand to prepare?
Anya: Yes, they have to it’s pretty complicated stuff. Then we had a finale with San Antonio Symphony. We had Gold Medalist who is Chinese, silver is Korean who lives in Paris. The bronze is Italian. That was our three winners.
Justin: What were the prizes?
Anya: Gold 25, Silver 15, and bronze 10.
Justin: Thousand dollars.
Anya: Yes. They were all sponsored by different individuals. It’s amazing how great of a response we’ve got in San Antonio, for this event. A lot of people help to underwrite different things, because there were a lot of things to underwrite, including most of these participants, they’re in the age of students, so they are not really wealthy to travel the world.
We paid their airfare from whenever they were coming from, to San Antonio and back, and they were staying here with people, with families. Then with even the ones who didn’t make it to next round, we paid a little stipend to them. We wanted to be kind to musicians.
Justin: Yes. You said there were 70 applicants, and then y’all whittled it down to 12. Did 70 submit videos or something of them playing?
Anya: Yes. Everybody submit an hour-long video performance. That was evaluated. Thank goodness, not by me. Evaluated by independent panel of professionals.
Justin: Just the endurance of playing the piano for an hour straight. That’s its own hurdle.
Anya: I know that it’s such a difficult profession, actually.
Justin: I’m sure you learned a lot of lessons in the first one that y’all put on.
Anya: Yes. Now, we started working on the next one, which is in 2024. We hope to make it like everything in America bigger and better.
Justin: Is the goal still to have 12 the next time around?
Anya: Yes. We were thinking, we were not going to change what worked. I think that this work, the whole structure worked. We want to add things which we think we were missing. We want to add very big community outreach and educational program associated with the competition. We’re thinking to dedicate, whole year to talk about piano and art of piano and the history in the countries with the schools, and put together a group of local piano player children to play for schools. We want to connect this world of piano with general constituencies so people feel it’s like piano is not a big deal.
Justin: While the musicians were here, did they also do any side performances or anything like that?
Anya: Yes. For example, judges did master classes. They did master classes at UTSA, and San Antonio art center, and Trinity University. As far as participants, that is tricky situation. They coming to Olympic Games. They’re practicing when they have to play, they practice for hours and hours and when they didn’t make it to next round, then they feel depressed. You don’t put them much to work. Next time, we might figure out how to deal with that as well. We might put them to work while they still here.
Justin: Is the winner part of a symphony. That’s obviously her job, is playing the piano, if she’s that good to win the competition, but is she a symphony members somewhere?
Anya: The pianist?
Anya: Yes. The pianist are going to perform, the gold medalist will be performing with San Antonio Symphony, that was in our agreement with San Antonio Symphony, for the symphony season. We talked to many other local organizations that agreed to invite our winners within period of four years to perform in San Antonio and maybe throughout Texas.
Justin: How many people work for Musical Bridges? How many employees do y’all have?
Anya: We have seven full-time.
Justin: Wow. That’s, you’ve got your hands full now.
Anya: [laughs] Yes.
Justin: As far as programming and events. You’ve got a lot obviously, you’ve got a lot on your plate, but are there any additional ones that y’all have been angling for or you think will be on the horizon?
Anya: We do have once a year a fundraiser which called [unintelligible 00:49:18], where we have a local medical professionals performing different musical instruments. We normally have it in September. We just had a brainstorming session on how to make this one extra special because we’re in year of pandemic. I don’t know if it’s politically correct for me to reveal the title but we thought about calling it Resuscitate. [laughs]
Justin: [chuckles] That’s fine.
Anya: We have to run it by a couple of people see if they like it. It’s very special event. We’re going to have it virtual too in September just to make sure but in October, we’re planning to Open Season live at the cathedral.
Justin: How many doctors will perform in
Anya: Normally, it’s about between 12 [unintelligible 00:50:04] instruments and doctors. It’s not only doctors there, some other professionals, who don’t do this for living. The idea is like if you play piano, but you don’t make money doing piano lessons, or play then you’ll qualify, and if you play piano well. We have all kinds of, we have singers and then Broadway and jazz and salsa and Indian dance. Then I’ve heard there’s a Chinese orchestra physicians in San Antonio, I’m going to go and find them. [laughs]
Justin: All right. In y’all bringing all types of musicians, what’s the most unique instrumentalist or musician y’all have brought in?
Anya: It’s hard for me to tell, but I can just give you a few. A couple of years ago, we brought an African musician from New York, and he played instrument called Kora. It looks like a barrel and it has strings in front, and it’s big like a cello. I’ve never seen one before. Actually, I’ve learned a lot through this year, of course, meeting all these musicians.
Another one, we just in the process of producing them, Japanese segment for the schools, and the instrument that the lady plays there called Koto. It’s an interesting instrument. It’s a shamisen and koto, I just learned by watching video yesterday. Shamisen is like a little banjo, but it’s square, and it has three strings.
Justin: I’ve seen those.
Anya: Koto is a long instrument with strings, going all the way around and they push them and then plunk them in the same time, and it produces some very interesting sound. Of course, we do also Russian program with Balalaika, there’s like a square instrument with three strings on it. The world has a lot of very interesting instruments. Indians have sitar and tablas.
Justin: Y’all had a sitar player?
Anya: We did.
Justin: What do you think would be the hardest instrument to learn?
Anya: Piano. I think so. [laughs]
Justin: I saw a harpist once, and I thought, “Where do they even start learning how to play a harp?”
Anya: Yes. They’re probably hard too. Piano, you know why it’s hard because an instrument which is capable to play more than one melodic line [unintelligible 00:52:28] No, I take it back. The most difficult instrument to learn to play is to conduct symphony orchestra. [laughs]
Justin: How often do you perform still?
Anya: Not too often now. Maybe four or five times
Justin: A year as part of some of the programming or just on your own things?
Anya: No. Programming, maybe once every three, four years. Now, I have to compete with all the fabulous musicians I’m bringing, so I’m to doing it, it’s a lot of pressure. [laughs] No, I have my piano deal with a friend of mine, we play piano together. Before pandemic, were meeting once a week and performing in different places, now during pandemic, I haven’t seen her for a year or so. Hopefully, we’ll revive that.
Justin: We’re getting about an hour and I try to keep this as an hour. This season I’m trying to figure out, who are some of the people you think would be good people to come on the show and talk about San Antonio, the San Antonio music scene, how we’re progressing?
Anya: You know Aaron Prado?
Justin: I do not.
Anya: He’s a jazz musician, and he is teaching in Northwestern College right now. He’s a good dude. Then there’s Ethan Wickman, he’s a composer professor at UTC, and he also plays oud, which is a weird instrument. He would be a nice guy to come and talk about music in San Antonio symphony. You need to promote the symphony.
Justin: Yes. They’ve been having a tough time based on what I’ve seen in the paper over the last few years.
Anya: Yes. I’m in symphony. We need symphony in this city.
Justin: I agree with you.
Anya: Especially, you’re addressing the right demographic for this supporting symphony. Maybe invite musician, not administrator.
Justin: Yes, I’d love to. I’m going to ask you this. It sounds even the international musicians y’all bring on are classically trained. Have you all ever had Backwoods American, banjo, spoons, the thing they do in their mouth, any of those musicians in?
Anya: The thing in the mouth we can’t do. We work with schools, you can’t imagine what restrictions we have. We bring in all kinds of musicians [crosstalk]
Justin: Like an old American jug band, where they’ve got the washboard.[laughter]
Anya: Actually it’s funny, you mentioned it. We are talking to a music group, which I’ve seen at the conference in New York, in Chamber Music Conference. They play that kind of music, with their [unintelligible 00:55:21]leading the group. We are negotiating to bring them to San Fernando next season. We’re doing all kinds of stuff, you need to come and check us out.
Justin: I’ve come to summer, I’ll come back. There’s so many good things in the city now that weren’t here when I first moved here, it’s juggling all of those.
Anya: We’re the best.
Justin: I believe you. Here’s the last thing I want to ask you. What is the difference between a violin and a fiddle?
Anya: It’s the way you play it.
Justin: That’s it?
Justin: It’s not tuned differently or anything?
Anya: You can tune violin anyway. Indians play violin too, Indian violin, which is tuned the way that sounds a mowing cat. I don’t want to offend anybody. That’s the only difference, instrument itself is the same.
Justin: When is the next event y’all will have, that will be public?
Anya: We’re going to virtually. We’re going to have an international music festival, which we’re converting into summit. They’re going to be a different panel of different musicians and talking, and then [unintelligible 00:56:24] with performance, it’s going to be middle of April, I believe April 18th, if I remember correctly. Then we have the end of the season program will be middle of May. We’ll be concluding this. We have a website, musical–
Justin: I was just going to ask. What is the website?
Anya: It’s musicalbridges.org. You can find all kinds of information in there, including curriculums, and interviews, and videos. We have a YouTube channel, which is Musical Bridges Around The World. YouTube channel, which has a lot of shows as well. Lately this season we’ve been producing movies all over the world.
Justin: Y’all have a membership too?
Anya: We do have membership. All the information is on our website. We still have house concerts for music to give members, who’re the same musicians who are performing in San Fernando on Sunday. On Saturday, perform for a small group of people with a fully catered evening, where you can hang out with like-minded people and have fun.
On Friday, we have impresario club membership, which takes place in Roosevelt Library with gourmet, sat-down, catered dinner, with a sommelier, and all that. It’s for impresario members. We serve to everybody, and the general public gets stuff for free.
Justin: I should maybe have the [unintelligible 00:57:49] from the Roosevelt on, that’s its own strange thing in San Antonio that so few people know about. That’s a great building.
Anya: Yes, it is [unintelligible 00:57:57]
Justin: Yes. That’s right. Well, Anya, thank you so much for doing this. You’re funny and charming, and what you’re doing for the city is fantastic. I will rejoin as a member, I kept meaning to do that and I just have not done that. Thank you so much for your time. I’m going to grab some videos. You email them to me, we’ll put them up on our social media and this will probably be up in a few days. Thank you so much, and I can’t wait to come see you in person once this craziness is over.
Anya: Sounds good. Thank you very much.
Justin: Thank you, Anya. Take care.
Thanks for joining us on this episode of the Alamo Hour. You are all what makes this city so great. We hope you join us next week. In the meantime, subscribe to our podcast. Check us out on Facebook at facebook.com/alamohour or our website alamohour.com. Until next time, viva San Antonio.