A Trio of One-of-a-kinds
In Washington, you can find lots of choirs and lots of orchestras, big and small. You can find choral societies, string quartets, dance and dance companies. But we also have institutions, organizations and individuals that are beyond category. Here’s three that are Washington treasures:
The Embassy Series
Sixteen years ago, Jerome Barry, a noted baritone, concert singer, teacher, scholar and man of many languages, had the idea to organize a series of concerts at various embassies throughout the city. It was a pretty good idea, small to begin with, but it grew like mad.
“We had six concerts, two or three embassies, and it’s fair to say it was pretty Euro-centric,” Barry said as he prepares to begin the 17th season of what was then called and still is “The Embassy Series in October.” “I thought it was a way for the embassies and people who loved music to meet one another. In the back of my head was always the idea that if it worked, this could turn out to be a vehicle for cultural diplomacy, for bridge building. This is a unique city, after all, we have a whole international community here, close to 200 embassies.”
Initially, European embassies, specifically Austria, Germany, and Poland, were the primary participants — these were the countries of Beethoven, Mozart, Strauss and Chopin, after all. The events would feature a concert, usually veteran or up-and-coming musicians from Europe, but also locals (and sometimes featuring Barry himself) to be followed by a reception with food, which provided opportunities for embassy officials and audience members to mingle and meet. It worked.
“We’ve had 58 embassies participate at one time or another so far,” Barry said. “And it has been a great opportunity for homegrown diplomacy, especially in these tense times were cultural gaps are so wide in the world.”
Barry’s Series have not only broadened, increased and widened the audience, they’ve broadened the horizons of the participants. While European embassies remain strong presences and supporters, the scope of the series has reached out Latin America, Africa, Israel, Asia and, perhaps most importantly, the Middle East. “Music is the great door opener,” Barry has said in the past. Last year’s season included a major concert at the very large and new Chinese Embassy, which proved to be a major cultural and social event. There were also concerts at the Embassy of Bahrain and the residence of the Ambassador of Syria, an inveterate blogger and culture consumer, which featured Kinan Azmeh, performing both traditional and contemporary Middle Eastern music with strong and appealing pop strains.
This year’s series begins with two concerts that all but characterize what the Embassy Series and Barry are all about.
The series opens Oct. 1 at the Iraqi Cultural Center with an evening of Iraqi music performed by ensemble of three Iraqi musicians called Safaafir, performing the country’s urban classical music, called Iraqi Maqam, as well as more traditional music.
This will be followed Oct. 17 by a concert at the Embassy of Austria, in which Till Fellner, who performed there last year, completes his major tour of the United States, during which he performed all of Beethoven’s sonatas. The internationally acclaimed pianist was born in Vienna, Austria and has played all over the world.
Taken together, the two concerts represent what the Embassy Series have been all about, a marriage of classical European music with an expansion to the music of the great world out there and here as performed in embassies and ambassadorial residences. It’s probably fair to say that Barry’s lone invention has influenced other recent efforts at cultural diplomacy such as Passport DC and the upcoming EuroKid festival.
The In Series
The In Series — a hard-to-describe series of performing arts events that combine just about everything performance has to offer — is celebrating its 10th anniversary at its 14th Street home at the newly renovated Source Theatre.
It will kick off its season with a double bill of American mini-operas, Leonard Bernstein’s strikingly contemporary and haunting “Trouble in Tahiti” and William Bolcom and Arnold Weinstein’s “Casino Paradise,” beginning Sept. 18 and running through Oct. 2.
It will be a season of so-called “pocket” operas for the In Series, with a pairing of Zarzuela, a Spanish musical in the form of the Cuban “Maria La O,” and the iconic “Pagliacci” by Ruggiero Leoncavallo.
Carla Hubner, the series’ producing artistic director, is also its founder and heart and soul. Nick Olcott, a veteran Washington theater director, is the series director and Francis Conlon is the music director. Look for a 10th Anniversary Big Birthday Bash Oct. 23 and 24 at the Gala/Tivoli theater, and a music performance by Soprano Fleta Hylton, pianist Tom Reilly and actor Jenifer Deal exploring the music and life of Robert Schuman on the bicentennial of his birth, Sept. 26 and Oct. 2.
The Folger Consort
The Folger Consort, a unique group of chamber musicians performing classical music from distant centuries are a unique group, offering yearly consorts focusing that evoke not only gorgeous music but history and historical culture itself.
This year’s season opens with “Pastime with Good Company,” music from the court of Henry VIII, featuring the vocal ensemble “Lionheart,” Oct. 1-3. It’s presented in conjunction with an exhibition on Henry VIII, which commemorates the 500th anniversary of the larger-than-life king’s accession to the English throne. Not coincidentally, there’s also an upcoming production of Shakespeare’s “Henry VIII” at the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Elizabethan Theater.
At Christmas Time, the Folger Consort will present “A Renaissance Christmas” at Georgetown University’s Gaston Hall with the Augsburg Cathedral Boys Choir of Germany, Dec. 10-12.