San Fernando Cathedral, the oldest continuously operating Catholic sanctuary in the United States, has acted as a crossroads in many ways throughout the years. It marks the geographical center of the city. All mile markers for San Antonio measure from a spot just behind its altar. It has stood as a center of public life in the city for almost three centuries, witnessing countless cultures and existing under six different flags.
Today, cultures meet at this place in a very different way. “We are a cosmopolitan oasis,” says Suhail Arastu, Director of Advancement at Musical Bridges Around the World, “We should recognize and promote that.” One of the many ways Musical Bridges is doing just that is through their programming at San Fernando Cathedral.
Musical Bridges Around the World Director of Advancement Suhail Arastu. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio
Just last month, they brought the “Baghdad Cellist” here to play with a Russian pianist and American Conductor. In the past, they have paired Israeli and Palestinian artists as well as Armenian and Syrian artists. The purpose is to challenge audiences’ preconceived notions of culture and art.
The performances, which often feature award-winning talent from around the world, are always free and open to the public. The subject matter is not limited to classical music. Content has included folk, jazz, world music, dance, and even visual art. There are also free dessert receptions, where the public has the opportunity to interact with the artists in an intimate setting.
“When artists come here, they become family,” says Suhail. His team show the artists uniquely San Antonio places, such as Southtown and the Esquire Tavern. “They get a real feel for the city,” he adds. The most common question artists ask him before they leave is when they can come back. “It’s very powerful for this community, because we’re sharing the world here. But these artists are also becoming ambassadors for our city.”
The artists don’t just see sights, but meet people- of all ages and backgrounds. Musical Bridges has cultivated free programming throughout the city that benefits many segments of the community. It brings artistic programming to students at over fifty schools in San Antonio. In many cases, this may the first encounter the students have with people of different cultural backgrounds.
In its “Golden Age” programming, Musical Bridges activates Senior and Community Centers with cultural performances. Oftentimes, former opera singers or musicians in the audience will reveal themselves, rejuvenated by these experiences. Suhail remembers one woman telling him, “Thank you for wiping the dust from my soul.”
Suhail says all these things confirm for him a belief that was always strong in his family. “Art is a part of our humanity, it’s a part of our culture, it’s a part of our very being,” he explains, “There is a perception that art is entertainment, that it’s a luxury, that it’s discretionary- and it’s not.”
Suhail didn’t always know that art would become his passion. Though he was raised in San Antonio, it took traveling the world to appreciate the artistry of his hometown. Through his many travels, whether teaching in Japan or joining the United Nations Economic & Social Council on missions to every continent, Suhail slowly discovered his passion for art through photography. He still journals every day through the pictures he takes.
During the 2008 recession, Suhail returned home to assist his family with their businesses. He didn’t plan on staying more than two years. But then something happened. “I ended up falling in love with the city I had grown up in,” he recalls.
Musical Bridges Around the World is comprised of five staff and impacts over 80,000 people every year. “It’s like traveling the world without setting foot outside of the city,” Suhail explains.