SATXtoday’s conversation with Suhail Arastu

Suhail-SATX-Q+A-Feature Image

“We believe that cultural arts education is really critical for learning and being good world citizens.” | Photo provided

It’s no secret that the Alamo City is at the forefront of arts + culture with organizations like San Antonio Street Art Initiative and the city’s program, Get Creative San Antonio, leading the charge, paint brush in hand.

But did you know that one organization is looking to make SATX the next classical music hub of international repute?

We recently spoke to Suhail Arastu, Director of Advancement for Musical Bridges Around the World (MBAW) about how the organization is doing just that.

Before we dive into our conversation, here is what you need to know about the organization:

  • MBAW was founded in 1998 by Russian-born concert pianist Dr. Anya Grokhovski.
  • This multicultural arts organization was envisioned as a way to create one-of-a-kind performances by internationally renowned artists.
  • Its mission is to celebrate our shared humanity by providing access to global arts for all.
  • The organization has now taken over the management of The Gurwitz (formerly known as San Antonio International Piano Competition) which brings in participants hailing from across the world every four years — Think: a ‘Piano Olympics’, if you will.

Here’s what Suhail Arastu had to say:

Can you tell me a little about your background and growing up in SATX?

My mother was in the Air Force, so I was born in Omaha. My sister is Canadian, my brother’s from Phoenix, but we all grew up here. Then, I went away for school. I went to university on the West Coast, [and then] started grad school on the East Coast before realizing I wasn’t really cut out for it. I spent some time away from academia + athletics in a fishing village I mentioned in my bio in Japan.

When I came back to San Antonio after a couple of years away, it was to help with the family business. And an old friend of mine, who was a pianist back when I was in Japan, was visiting. He happened to be playing at the house. And I said, ‘Gosh, you played so well. I’d love to have you play for the public.’ But I didn’t know the first thing about what was happening on the music scene because I had grown up here and been away, and I had no involvement in the artistic happenings.

I was moving back here to help with the family business [with] the recession, so I was kind of working day and night. One of our businesses is a gymnastic center, and one of our patrons happened to have a daughter in [a MBAW] program. I told her about my friend that was coming, and she said, ‘Well, he sounds very interesting and very accomplished. Why don’t you talk to the artistic director of Musical Bridges, that organization I serve on the board for? She’s actually a pianist herself, so you can tell her about your friend.’

So I did. I shared a YouTube link [with Dr. Anya Grokhovski]. I had never met her before, but she said that she liked the performance, the cathedral was free + available, and that they put on concerts… And I didn’t know the first thing about marketing, but she said, ‘we’ll have the cathedral, but you do all of the publicity’. I didn’t know what that meant, really. I don’t have any kind of a marketing background. So I just went into the phonebook and looked at the Yellow Pages with all of the piano schools, stores, and piano teachers that I could find. I printed flyers at Kinko’s and went to deliver or mail them. We ended up having a [sizable] audience and a three-minute standing ovation afterwards.

I then met Anya for the first time and she said, ‘Well, you seem to do good marketing. Why don’t you join our board of directors?’... and about a decade later, I’m still with the organization.

Do you mind sharing your role and how that ties into MBAW’s mission?

Our mission as an organization is to celebrate our shared humanity by providing access to global arts for all. And to advance that mission, I work with our partners both on a foundation level as a government liaison as well as our philanthropists. We’re grateful to be supported by the public, as well as the private sector. In the city of San Antonio, we have the Department of Art and Culture. I do liaise with our city government and all of our council members who work on special project funds for programming. I also maintain our relationship with our county officials including the commissioner Tommy Calvert and Judge Wolff. So that’s on kind of a local level, and then the Texas Commission on the Arts supports us at the state level. Nationally, we have the National Endowment for the Arts. So I continue to keep all of those partners, abreast of our happenings, updating them on our needs, as well as our impact on the community and what we do for the public and visitors to San Antonio…

And then we have individual donors. We have a membership series where we have contracts for our members of certain thresholds to really thank them for what they do to help keep our programming free, which is very important to our board of directors and to actualize our mission. By keeping the concepts free, it lowers the barrier to entry for those that may not be able to afford them. And our concerts, as you may have noticed, are of high caliber [featuring] some of the best musicians from around the world [from] Grammy award-winning artists to winners of the Van Cliburn and Schakowsky piano competitions. We really try to harness the best of the best talent from around the globe.

And we’re not just a presenting organization. We commission a lot of original work and involve our chamber and symphony musicians here in San Antonio, as well as others around Central-East Texas through our partnership with the Grand Opera Studio in Houston. We have great partnerships with our academics here from Dr. Carolyn True, Dr. Aaron Prado, and Dr. Ethan Wickman who’s over at UTSA. We commissioned the work that was played during the Gurwitz International Piano Competition for Dr. Wickman. So it’s this really nice hybrid of highlighting all of the great talent we have in San Antonio, whilst inspiring our local audiences with some of the greatest musicians from around the globe.

Can you tell me more about Kids to Concerts and MBAW’s role in advancing education?

Sure. I’ll give you a little background to provide context to that program. If you’re interested, I’ll even tell you how MBAW began because it’s an interesting story. Anya, our founder, came here from the Soviet Union and was working as an accompanist at UTSA. While she was here, her Russian and Eastern European friends would visit and would have small recitals in her home or the homes of some of her private students around the Hill Country area. And Father David Garcia at the time, this was back in the late 90s, was a rector of the San Fernando Cathedral, which is the oldest continuously operating Catholic sanctuary in the United States. He had just come back from sabbatical in Europe and has seen some of the great houses of worship across the continent. And if you spend time in great world cities, oftentimes these churches are activated by chamber music when mass is over or there’s no services happening. And that’s a really beautiful way to bring the public into this, these hallowed spaces.

So he thought, why don’t we do that in San Antonio? And he heard Anya’s little house concerts and approached her with this idea. And she said, ‘Yeah, that sounds good’. So that’s how musical bridges began. Now, we’re approaching our 25th year and closing our season this weekend.

So now, when these musicians were coming to San Antonio performing at the cathedral they thought, ‘Well, gosh, the school system here doesn’t really value arts as the same way in the old world’. Oftentimes, arts are cut when budgets are cut. It’s the first thing to go because it’s sort of seen as discretionary entertainment value added, and not really ‘core’. So Anya thought the musicians are coming here anyway, why don’t we share them in some of the schools? While the school administrators had to teach for the test, so they have a very strict curriculum on what they’re allowed to teach based on the time that they have. Even though the musicians were coming and we weren’t gonna charge the schools, there wasn’t really space in the schedule.

So a gentleman who was a music teacher in the Southwest Independent School District said, ‘If you want to get into schools, you’ve got to somehow tie it to their curriculum and what they’re learning’. Well, the musicians are coming from all over the world, so we could share their geography or their language + culture. And that is part of the lesson, and children would gather in the largest space that the school offers. Musicians were performing and that would be their sort of cultural social studies lesson. It was a nice way for children to travel to a place without leaving their school because as we know, San Antonio is challenged with economic segregation. We have certain under-resourced schools where kids aren’t leaving their neighborhood, much less the city side of the country. So this now is the world coming to them, which is very special... We believe in the importance of arts as a medium for learning and creative thinking beyond the discipline itself, but also how it impacts other subjects.

So we were able to hire a Director of Educational engagement who actually oversees these programs. We’re not really in the education business — well, we are new— but that’s not our core mission. However, we see the need in the community. Through that, we hope this will eventually be adopted by school districts and as well as the state. We believe that cultural arts education is really critical for learning and being good world citizens.

Gurwitz Musical Bridges 2020

Yedam Kim sitting alongside her trophy for placing second at The Gurwitz. | Photo by Greg Harrison

Greg Harrison/Greg Harrison

Join MBAW’s Evenings at San Fernando Cathedral series season finale concert featuring a solo performance by silver medalist of the 2020 Gurwitz International Piano Competition, Yedam Kim, this Sun., May 8 at 7 p.m. (registration required).

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