It started in 1998 in a small bookstore in downtown Richmond. The bookstore no longer exists, but the annual Paley Music Festival has remained with us ever since, drawing both popular and critical acclaim for its bold programming and brilliant performances.
Pianist Alexander “Sasha” Paley first visited Richmond in 1997 to perform with the Richmond Symphony Orchestra. As he told music reviewer Clarke Bustard, in Richmond’s rich historical tapestry, “For the first time I had a taste of American history. What America really is I found out here, not in New York,” where he settled after defecting from the former Soviet Union in 1988. Sasha fell in love with our city, and the Alexander Paley Music Festival was born.
After the bookstore, and except for the huge Tenth Anniversary bash held at the VCU Singleton Center, the Festival has been hosted by Richmond churches. The longest run — about a dozen years — was at the First English Evangelical Lutheran Church on Stuart Circle. When their music director retired at the end of 2013, the Festival moved to its present venue, beautiful St. Luke Evangelical Lutheran Church on Chippenham Parkway.
A handful of dedicated volunteers has kept the Festival going over its eighteen year history, mostly just as an informal board working with the church. Now the Festival is registered as an IRS 501(c)(3) organization.
The Alexander Paley Music Festival mirrors Richmond’s unique blend of big city, small town. Festival performances by Mr. Paley and his fellow artists are big in ambition, big in scope of repertoire, and huge in virtuosity. Even the piano, lent by Blüthner USA, has a big, big sound. Yet the Festival retains an intimacy that brings its audience into a golden circle formed only by passionate live performance. The present venue, St. Luke, puts audience and performers into a physical proximity that is closer than possible in most venues, creating a more intimate experience than in any of the festivals since the original bookstore.
Pianist Pei-wen Chen (concert pianist, vocal coach and faculty member of Mannes College in New York City, and Mr. Paley’s wife) and local clarinetist Charles West (Professor of Music at VCU) have performed with Mr. Paley in every Festival since the beginning. Other musicians have been a mix of local and visiting, including Marie-André Chevrette, associate principle 2nd violin with Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal; Jose Ramos Santeros, artist faculty member of the International Keyboard Institute and Festival at Mannes College in New York City; and Clyde Shaw, professor of cello and chamber music at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia.
2015 marks the 18th Alexander Paley Music Festival.