Cellist Zuill Bailey on the Role of a Festival’s Artistic Director

By Zuill Bailey

The transformative power of music and the role of a festival’s artistic director

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Sitka, Alaska, sits in the shadow of a dormant volcano, Mt. Edgecumbe: It is a dramatic backdrop to a city already rich in natural splendor. In July of 2013, a group of faithful climbers and music lovers, myself included, decided that the trek to its peak would be more than just a powerful climb—it would be an incredible musical event. Could the heavenly beauty of Bach be felt at the top of the volcano? Could I carry a cello 3,000 feet in elevation and a total of 18 miles? I decided that with my carbon-fiber cello on my back, I could accomplish the task.

On a typical rainy, misty summer day in Sitka, up we went. As the climb began—and with the cello in tow—I ascended the steep slopes with my friends and colleagues. It was both beautiful and difficult, and the conflict of the two emotions kept us going.

Nothing is more rewarding than playing my cello and using music to soothe and heal.

With two miles remaining in the climb, I sat to take a moment of reflection, and to revere my surroundings, contemplating the music that was to come.

I got to my feet. We all knew, in our rainforest habitat, that the only thing remaining  was “up.” Together, we pushed through to the top, experiencing the sense of accomplishment conferred by a “once in a lifetime” adventure.

We made it!

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What transpired after that was literally “Bach in the Clouds,” followed by a celebration. As we slowly descended the rugged mountain, we were reminded that more often than not, the power of music can bring people together to accomplish extraordinary things.

When I was at the top of Mt. Edgecumbe, I couldn’t help but reflect on the reason I was drawn to this place: to become the artistic director of the Sitka Summer Music Festival. It is not the only festival or music series that I serve in this role—I’m also artistic director of El Paso Pro-Musica in Texas; the Connoisseur Concert Series/Northwest Bach Festival in Spokane, Washington; and the “Classical Inside and Out” series in Mesa, Arizona. Culture and the arts form the heartbeat of these amazing cities.

I believe my role as an artistic director is to work with communities to help sculpt the musical landscape of the region. While each is unique in scope and terrain, these festivals all operate on a consistent theme, and my lifelong mission: making music accessible to all.

I owe the success of my career to lifelong friendships that began at festivals.

Alaska represents a unique opportunity to bring music to a striking array of venues, all seemingly dwarfed by a wild and spectacular landscape. I have travelled from traditional concert halls to isolated oil fields, presenting concerts where these kinds of events are not the norm. The work on the oil fields is incredibly strenuous, and these employees are isolated from the rest of the state.

The Sitka Summer Music Festival was granted permission to enter these premises,  and our role was simply to provide the brave employees relief, a new perspective, and a glimpse of peace and tranquility that only music can provide.

In addition to presenting these hard-to-reach concerts, I’ll watch the Juilliard String Quartet perform a concert in Sitka, then travel the very next day to the Hiland Correctional Facility just outside of Anchorage to perform for and with the women’s orchestra there. Classical music knows no boundaries, and in programming the Sitka Summer Music Festival, I strive to present and celebrate the world’s greatest music and musicians while making the music accessible to all those who would otherwise not be exposed to the classics.

When programming a single festival, reaching as many facets of the community is a goal.

The Sitka Summer Music Festival in June includes what may be considered standard fare for a music festival: There are, of course, stellar musicians performing in evening concerts in fairly traditional venues. But the overall mission is to connect with and celebrate the community by programming events throughout the city at Café Concerts, free lunchtime performances, and special musical events, like family concerts on Sundays when the community can come together and learn about the instruments and the music. Then we all—including the musicians—enjoy time together over an ice cream social, a crab feed, or a gathering at home base, historic Stevenson Hall. With musical movie screenings and wildlife cruises, the festival reflects the strength of the community’s spirit and the importance of Sitka’s landscape in the lives of its residents.


Each of the festivals I lead offer experiences drawn from the unique musical environment of that particular city. In El Paso, we have a ten-year collaboration with the El Paso Museum of Art, where each Thursday in January during the chamber-music festival, we present a free concert at noon called, “Bach’s Lunch.” In Spokane, “Flash Bach” performances allow me to travel throughout the city and present impromptu concerts everywhere from community centers to city hall. “Twilight Tours” at beautiful historic locations, and related concert series at the Barrister Winery and Hamilton Studio also celebrate the culture of the community. In Mesa, during the “Classical Inside and Out Series,” hundreds gather in area parks to experience glorious music outdoors, in a beautiful, relaxed atmosphere.

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have found that what makes festivals flourish is creating multi-faceted, multi-sensorial experiences presenting the greatest music and musicians, while building on friendships, education, and community engagement. These festivals mean more than just performing—we are committed to making a difference in the communities through extensive community outreach. I perform in schools, where students not only learn lessons about the music, but develop an appreciation for composers, instruments, and the fine arts. I also work with guest artists to present master classes at the university level, working directly with music majors looking toward a career in music in the 21st century. 

Nothing is more rewarding than playing my cello and using music to soothe and heal at hospice centers, senior centers, and neonatal intensive-care units, where doctors have seen an immediate change in oxygen levels and heart rates in newborns while they listen to the sounds of the cello. Music also brings relief to the nursing staff, the doctors, and, of course, the parents.

Though separated by geography, these festivals are all united by the forging of so many friendships, and a dedication to the notion that music must be made accessible to all.


Audiences, whether filled with adults or children never cease to amaze me. Children learn confidence in communication and expression through music. Adults are inspired to accomplish greater things in their lives.

There are undeniable musical benefits to being involved with these organizations. I owe the success of my career to lifelong friendships that began at festivals. I have forged bonds in communities with incredible supporters and with outstanding musical artists, who are so generous with their time and their talents. Everything I do, including recording, is about loyalty and friendship. We get to know each other through artistic collaborations, and become stronger and more vibrant musicians as a result.

Recently, while sitting in a restaurant in El Paso, I was approached by a young woman in her 20s who thanked me for performing at her school while in kindergarten and throughout her education. She believed that these consistent artistic encounters gave her a different vantage point that ultimately changed her life both personally and professionally.

To hear these stories reinforces my dedication to this work. It is a privilege to serve as the artistic director of festivals in Sitka, El Paso, Spokane, and Mesa; it is a joy for me that exists beyond words.

I believe that the grass is always greener where you water it, and I am truly lucky to share my work with regions that believe in my vision of making music accessible to all.

I hope that the legacy I leave is one of goodwill, of friendship and community. It is my wish that the music shared at all of these festivals will make a difference, exposing young people to the glory of this art form, creating a new generation that will appreciate the joys and beauty of classical music.