Causing heart attacks is not officially in the mission statement of Musical Bridges Around the World (MBAW), but its programming nearly caused a couple of them, according to founder Anya Grokhovski.
The occasion was two classically trained musicians confronting their long-held stereotypes during a 2011 MBAW concert that mixed traditional European classical music with traditional Indian classical music. Just that both could be rightly termed “classical” shocked Grokhovski, and her Indian counterpart, Sujatha Venkatashwar, was stunned that Grokhovski would consider her work to be “folk music.”
Both learned to appreciate each other’s cultures, and such educational experiences are at the heart of MBAW’s mission to “unite, educate, and inspire through culturally diverse programming.”
Continuing its mission, this Friday MBAW opens its sixth annual International Music Festival in San Antonio, with a slate of musicians that unites Serbia and Brooklyn, traditional Japanese taiko drumming with ballet, and Mozart with rumba.
All festival performances are free and open to the public, with concerts Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at the Charline McCombs Empire Theatre and March 29 and 31 at San Fernando Cathedral.
Three-time Grammy-nominee and master of the kamancheh (a traditional four-stringed upright Persian fiddle), Kayhan Kalhor sets the tone of the festival Friday when he performs with the string quartet Brooklyn Rider, notable for its cross-cultural approach to music.
“They are a talented group of young musicians who realize that world music has to be more interconnected,” Grokhovski said, explaining that the days of separate musical genres are giving way to a more fluid, multicultural world.
“Music is always the language of society in time,” the Russian native said. Today, musicians are finding ways to better communicate with different genres and styles, reflecting the situation in the world, she said.
“The parallel would be in real life different languages, different gods, different foods. But we are all human, so we all better communicate to the best of our ability in order to keep our planet in one piece,” she said.
On Saturday, trumpeters Tom Harrell and Ambrose Akinmusire, noted for mixing jazz, rap, and classical music, lead Harrell’s ensemble through a program of harmonically complex, percussive jazz.
Sunday’s concert marks a return to Grokhovski’s initial inspiration for starting Musical Bridges. Percussionist and flutist Kaoru Watanabe, a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s formative Silkroad Ensemble, will perform with Nao Kusuzaki, a female ballet dancer, Grokhovski said, to balance the masculinity of his large-scale taiko drum.
“They are the ones who inspired me way back,” she said of Silkroad’s “new way of thinking” about music as a collaboration across cultures. The inception of the ensemble in 1998 coincides with Grokhovski’s founding of Musical Bridges 21 years ago.
Showmanship is another key element to MBAW performances, reflected by the Austin Troubadours in their March 29 performance at San Fernando Cathedral. The group performs Renaissance music with traditional instruments and dressed in era costumery.
“As the artistic director, I really believe what I put onstage should be entertaining, a good marriage of high classical arts but presented in a very accessible way,” she said.
The festival concludes March 31 with a family affair, featuring the Janoska Ensemble from Vienna. Brothers Ondrej, Roman, and František join brother-in-law Julius Darvas to present a riveting, head-spinning blend of musical styles. The song title Rumba for Amadeus neatly sums up their approach, using pinpoint musicianship to move from flowing Mozart melodies to danceable rumba rhythms that literally bring audiences out of their seats, Grokhovski said.
During the festival’s intervening week, visiting musicians will continue Musical Sprouts, the organization’s educational program, by playing for students and seniors around San Antonio.
The ambition of MBAW extends beyond bridging musical differences, a point made by Grokhovski and her colleagues Elena Portnaya, artistic coordinator, and Suhail Arastu, advancement director. Arastu points out that the three of them represent a vision for a more harmonic world.
“We joke that it’s an organization founded by a Russian Jew, with an Indian Muslim programming in a Catholic cathedral,” Arastu said.
Music, all three agree, can serve as a bridge between cultures and between the kinds of differences that metaphorically almost caused coronaries in Grokhovski and Venkatashwar early on in the festival’s history.
“Music is an unbelievable language which really brings people together,” Grokhovski said. “So the vast world of music, in my mind, is a replica of the world of humanity. Since we are a music company, we use music as a medium to do our part to build world peace. It’s what resources we have.”
Arastu agreed. Music is a reflection of the world, he said, “and you look at that reflection, at things that are tragic, or complex, or beautiful. They exist in their own right, but through music you can recreate that reflection, and it’s accessible to everyone. That’s a really powerful thing.”
The full International Music Festival schedule is available here.