Musical Bridges Around the World began 20 years ago as a reflection of founder Anya Grokhovski’s childhood: a family of musicians gathered at home in Moscow, playing for each other. Though her strict violinist father might have overreached in his criticism of her piano playing, she still cites her musical parents’ influence on what would become her lifelong commitment to music.

Later in college, she would gather with friends to play impromptu concerts, experiences that forged lifelong bonds. Those memories informed Grokhovski’s early attempts, after settling in San Antonio with then-husband Valeri, to recreate the intimate dynamic of home concerts for true music lovers. With their help, she invited musicians, mainly from her home country of Russia, to perform.

Of those early days, Grokhovski said, “the main thing was just sharing. We wanted to share who we know and what we know, our craft. We wanted to share that with the new country we had moved to.”

With encouragement from the circle of fans she had built and the help of a local accountant, Musical Bridges Around the World (MBAW) was incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 1999. With regular concerts at San Fernando Cathedral and other locations in San Antonio, the group eventually moved far beyond private salons to reach an estimated 80,000 San Antonians per year with a program of free concerts featuring a dynamic array of international musicians, alongside extensive education and outreach programs.

From Gurwitz to ‘The Gurwitz

This week, MBAW expands to include The Gurwitz International Piano Competition, which features a dozen top pianists from around the world plying their talents in hopes of winning the $25,000 top prize, among other awards and accolades.

The weeklong competition is named for Ruth Jean Gurwitz, a driving force behind the San Antonio International Piano Competition, which was founded in 1984. Gurwitz died in 2015, and her competition found a home with MBAW.

Grokhovski said she’d attended the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow since childhood “and had always been admiring it in my mind. A piano competition is a treasure for any city.” She’d known Gurwitz since relocating to San Antonio from Moscow in 1991 to become a staff accompanist at University of Texas at San Antonio, and said Gurwitz “was very kind to us, and introduced us to a lot of people and really championed the competition.”

Today, as Grokhovski and MBAW prepare to host their very first Gurwitz, she said, “It’s like [frosting] on the chocolate cake of piano music. Not that many cities in the world can do that. And I think that’s a great honor.”

Grokhovski and the Gurwitz Committee of MBAW enlisted San Antonio Spurs legend David Robinson, himself a sometime musician, as honorary chair for its inaugural Gurwitz competition. Billboards featuring Robinson decorate San Antonio’s freeways in an effort to attract a wide audience to the competition and emphasize its importance to the city’s cultural landscape.

‘Round the World of Music

A click on MBAW’s website is greeted by an offer to reserve free tickets to competition events, including the opening judges’ showcase at the Pearl Stable, and rounds I, II, and III of the contestant performances at Trinity University’s Ruth Taylor Recital Hall.

For the second round, each of the 12 contestants will perform a piece from their home countries (Italy, Russia, China, South Korea, Canada, and Ukraine are represented), along with a piece by a Latin composer to celebrate San Antonio’s cultural heritage.

“Musical Bridges is all about celebrating cultural diversity, and so after we married [with] this competition, we thought, ‘What can we do to make it ours?’” Grokhovski said.

She grows passionate when talking about the competition’s third round, which she calls “totally unique” in the world of piano competitions. A piece by San Antonio composer Ethan Wickman, who teaches in UTSA’s music department, will be performed by contestants with members of the Silk Road Ensemble, who will add unusual instrumentation such as clarinet and Middle Eastern percussion.   

The Wickman composition also encourages improvisation. “Nobody does that because it’s presumed that classical pianists cannot improvise,” she said, though classical composers traditionally incorporated improvisation, Bach being the most famous example. “We’re trying to bring it back.”

The contest culminates on Saturday at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts in a ticketed event with prices ranging from $15 to $50. The three finalists will perform with the San Antonio Symphony, whose musical director, Sebastian Lang-Lessing, is one of the competition’s five judges.

A ticketed awards ceremony at 11 a.m. Sunday in the Peacock Lounge of the St. Anthony Hotel will close the competition.

Once the first Gurwitz ends, Grokhovski and MBAW will go back to their regular programming, with its next performance Feb. 23 at San Fernando Cathedral featuring Israeli musicians Avi Avital and Bridget Kibbey.

Grokhovski herself will join the slate for a special summer performance June 7, to honor her violinist father Yuri Sheykhet. Grokhovski will perform alongside her brother Mark Cheikhet, also a violinist, and pianist Alena Gorina.

Free for All

Father David Garcia, the San Antonio priest known for his historic preservation work, was an early supporter of MBAW.

“Her dream was that the great classical music and great classical musicians should be available to everybody, and I really bought into that dream,” he said of Grokhovski.

What sets MBAW apart, Garcia said, is that its concerts are free. “That is really important at the cathedral,” Garcia said of MBAW’s main concert venue. “The fact that they keep them free is just such an important part of their mission, to make music – and we’re talking, great, great classical music – available to everybody in San Antonio. And that’s why they get the place packed every time.”

This week Grokhovski will join the audiences for the Gurwitz, simply to appreciate the spectacle.

“The performances on this level, people should join just enjoy them,” Grokhovski said. “Just go and admire it and enjoy it and just take this opportunity because, you know, it happens once every four years. If you miss it this time you’ll have to wait for another four years.”

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...