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It's one thing, amazing in itself, to privately pursue an art form to the point where you are among the best in your field. It is another to channel that creative energy back out to the world to bring joy to others. Juneau-based virtuoso violinist Paul Rosenthal wraps these two things together so seamlessly as to make them inseparable, his love for classical music being fed and sustained by the appreciation of audiences from tiny, remote Alaskan communities to major European cities. What's more, he considers himself the lucky one.
Paul received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Alaska State Council on the Arts' Governor's Awards last month in recognition of a career in the state that has spanned 40 years. Since his arrival in Fairbanks in 1969 with his wife, violinist Linda Rosenthal, he has played in countless venues, from school gyms to concert halls, inviting other musicians to join him, most notably in his Sitka Summer Music Festival and its offshoots, the Autumn Classics and Winter Classics sponsored by Alaska Airlines. Nancy DeCherney, executive director of the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council, said his influence on the state has been immense.
"As people like George Rogers were formative in the political and economic realm, I think that Paul and Linda set some standards for the state as it grew," she said.
"And it gives other musicians a sense of pride to know there is a person of Paul's worldwide stature living here."
Paul's fondness for Alaska and Alaskans was immediate and lasting. He frequently visited his brother, also a musician, in Fairbanks while a graduate student at the University of Southern California, and upon graduation decided to make the leap, bringing his new bride along with him.
"It took nothing at all to persuade me," Linda said, noting that they had been married two days at that point. "It felt like a wonderful adventure and his enthusiasm was infectious."
The pair settled in Fairbanks, where they were warmly welcomed by the friends Paul had made on his earlier visits. Paul was soon offered a job at University of Alaska Fairbanks, and Linda accepted one in the University's statewide services department, traveling to communities throughout the state to teach and perform. During that time, Paul made his first trip to Southeast while performing with Gordon Wright's Arctic Chamber Orchestra. Struck by the natural beauty of the Sitka, Paul quickly decided it would be the perfect place to host a chamber music festival. Thad Poulson, editor and publisher of the Sitka Sentinel, remembers the day he met Paul very well.
"One summer day, Paul shows up at the office- and you have to have known Paul then to appreciate the impact that he made. Big black bushy beard and very animated, very excited. We didn't know him, but we knew that he was something special."
He told Poulson he thought Sitka was the greatest place he'd ever seen, and wanted to start a festival there. Would he help?
"And, of course, we did." Poulson was president of the festival for 20 years, and now serves on its board.
The first event, in 1972, was a huge success. Paul invited some of his classmates from LA to perform, and the audience was thrilled.
"Paul was the festival," Poulson said. "Huge person. Huge talent. Huge circle of talented friends."
The festival now attracts musicians from all over the world, and has grown to include two additional festivals in Anchorage, the Autumn and Winter Classics. Paul also organizes a touring arm, bringing small groups of musicians to Alaskan cities such as Dillingham and Bethel and small villages such as King Salmon (population 442). In many cases, the concerts have spread organically, through word of mouth, or through chance encounters. In one case, one of the musicians, from Holland, was a bird watcher who wanted to visit Chevak. Inquiries were made and a concert was scheduled.
When he's not touring in Alaska, Paul is often touring in other states or in Europe, a hectic schedule that his wife said has always been part of both their lives.
But, in spite of the lure of major cities down south and in Europe, Paul has always been glad to call Alaska home. At one point he did try to live elsewhere, taking a job at McGill University in Montreal. But after a year he realized it wasn't the place for him, and happily came back to Juneau. He's never looked back.
Part of the draw, he said, since the very beginning has been the warmth of the people and the joy of performing for receptive audiences.
"Wherever I went (in Alaska), people said, 'Thank you for playing the violin,'" he said. "When it was it was time to get on the plane, I always thought, 'Why am I leaving?'"
After five years in Fairbanks, in 1974, Linda came to Southeast to work for UAS (before it was UAS) while Paul worked for UAA (before it was UAA), flying down when he could. Not long after, he left university life to follow a less structured path, one that allowed him more freedom to tour, something he continues to do.
One of the groups both Rosenthals tour with is the Piatigorsky Foundation, a nonprofit that schedules concerts around the country in places where audiences might not otherwise get a chance to hear music of that caliber, such as children's hospitals, retirement communities and prisons. The foundation was formed in 1990 by Evan Drachman, grandson of renowned cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, in accordance with his grandfather's belief that music was "for everyone."
"Music makes life better. Music is a necessity. It is rich. It is imaginative. It is magnificent. And it is for everyone," Piatigorsky is quoted as saying on the foundation's website.
It's a philosophy that could also describe Paul's work throughout the state, in playing music not just for ticket-paying concert audiences, but for regular people.
Linda said when she started the Juneau Jazz & Classics festival, it was in part due to her husband's influence and attitude.
"Even in our student days, he's always been an inspiration to me. Not only musically, but his conviction strengthen my convictions.
"He stayed true to his focus and true to his heart, in what he wanted the Sitka festival to be," she said.
The Sitka festival now has a quarter-million dollar budget, and continues to draw musicians from all over world. Poulson said that, like Paul, the musicians he has met through the festival have been some of the most interesting and accessible people he's ever had the good fortune to meet.
"These are some of the most fascinating people to talk to that you will ever find. It's just fun to be in their presence."
Paul's family of musical friends continues to grow and change. Many musicians make the return trip to Alaska year after year, feeling, as Paul does, that there is something very special about this particular festival in this particular town.
Paul is scheduled to hand the reins of the festival over to Zuill Bailey next year, and said he won't miss the "jigsaw puzzle" of coordination the event requires. He'll continue to perform, however, both in Alaska and on the road.
Most of the time the Rosenthals are on separate touring tracks, a lifestyle they both said is fed by the pleasure of knowing that the other is pursuing a fulfilling career. Occasionally, two or three times a year, they'll get to play together, such as in last year's performance with the Juneau Symphony, when they played Spohr's "Concertante No. 2 for Two Violins and Orchestra."
"We're delighted when that happens," Linda said. "It's special, for many reasons."
Juneau Symphony Conductor Kyle Pickett said he considers Paul one of the best in the world. Apart from his technical proficiency, he said, he has always been struck by his intuitive musicianship, and the fact that he obviously loves to play.
"He's got this great combination of head and heart in his playing," he said, adding that Juneau is very lucky to have him.
For the Rosenthals, the feeling is mutual.
"All the ingredients (we need) seem to be right in Alaska, and Juneau in particular," Linda said.
Paul, born in 1942, took up the violin at age three, encouraged by his mother, a pianist, and his father, a amateur violinist. Not long after he started playing, his father was politely advised to find another activity.
"(My father was told), 'You should give up playing, you're setting a poor example for your son," Paul recalled.
Paul, who grew up in New Rochelle outside of New York City, said that by the time he turned 12 or 13, he knew he was fortunate to have been given that early start.
"I realized how lucky I was to be on that track," he said.
Until the time he was 50, he doesn't think he ever missed a day of practice. Now, on the cusp of 70, he sometimes goes a day without playing, but his commitment to the music and sharing it with others is unlikely to wane.
"It's a love," he said.
Editor's note: The Governor's Awards for the Arts are awarded annually by the Alaska State Council on the Arts. This year eight awards were given, including two to Juneau residents.
Categories vary from year to year, with the exception of Individual Artists awards, which are given annually. Lifetime Achievement awards are only bestowed when an appropriate nomination has been made.
Six council members serve as the panel of judges, and they review all the the nominations before making a recommendation to the full council of 11 members. The council then passes those names to the governor, who gives final approval. The governor also distributes the awards to the recipients.
For more information, visit www.eed.state.ak.us/aksca/