Home Susan Yerkes Cultural champions

Cultural champions


There’s something truly thrilling about watching a championship, whether it’s sports or another competition.

I experienced a burst of excitement at The Gurwitz 2020 International Piano Competition in San Antonio. Time after time, when one of the “playoff” finalists finished a powerful performance, the audience bounced up, hollering, “Bravo!”   

It shouldn’t have been a surprise. The 12 pianists were vying for more than the $25,000 prize. A win could launch a brilliant career.    

Ever since music patrons Ruth Jean Gurwitz and Richard Ferguson organized the first of these events, which became the San Antonio International Piano Competition in 1983, it has continued every two, three or four years, and matured. But, after more than three decades, the board wished to infuse it with new energy and enthusiasm. So, they asked one of the most energetic, accomplished and effective musicians they knew to help. That was Anya Grokhovski, director and CEO of the nonprofit Musical Bridges Around the World.

The competition was rebranded The Gurwitz, with beloved Spurs champion David Robinson, a lifelong piano player and philanthropist, as honorary chairman. A leadership committee of all-star fundraisers led by Susan Franklin and including Sheryl Sculley, Tracy Wolff, Jane Macon, Margaret Kelley, Sonya Medina Williams and Debbie Montford added clout and visibility.

The final concert was at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, with Sebastian Lang-Lessing – one of the judges – conducting the San Antonio Symphony. More sponsors, more prize money and more perks for competitors heightened interest and led to first-time inclusion in the World Federation of International Music Competitions. And, like all of Musical Bridges’ many spectacular events, most performances were open to the public and free.

Nearly 7,500 people attended four rounds and two concerts, and 3,500 schoolchildren were bused to the concerts or final round. Jurors, all renowned musicians, gave master classes and workshops to 1,250 college and university students. When The Gurwitz rolls around again in 2024, I expect even more excitement.

This is all part of the remarkable story of Musical Bridges. It started in 1998 when Grokhovski brought a few enthusiastic music patrons together to put on a small salon series with visiting international musicians. Next came free recitals at San Fernando Cathedral and Musical Bridges’ annual International Music Festival – again, at no cost. And all keyed to the mission embodied in the name – transforming lives through multicultural performing and visual arts by shattering barriers, creating connectivity and inspiring hope “for those with least access.” The Kids to Concerts program has brought global musicians to more than 50,000 children in 62 schools.

“My deep belief,” Grokhovski said, “is that people don’t understand what they don’t know.” Musical Sprouts, a partnership with UT Health San Antonio, reaches youngsters with a science, technology, engineering, arts and math curriculum helping educators learn what works best to inspire and assist kids to learn. The Golden Age program takes visiting musicians to nursing homes and senior centers.   

Funded entirely by grants, individual support and sponsors, Musical Bridges is doing wonders. The Gurwitz is just the latest high-profile example. It’s a coup for the city, a celebration of diversity and a showcase for champions – in other words, a win-win-win. Bravo!


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