Saturday, December 31, 2011

Winter 2011

Some years stand out more than others. This one was striving for the record books, what with an earthquake, fatal flood, plastic surgery and involvement in a 4-car pile up on the Dulles Greenway. Yet I lived to tell about it. Read on, if you dare.

I ushered in the New Year in Florida with a stay in Delray Beach, FL, holed up with my travel pal Rob at the remarkable 1920s era Colony Hotel and Cabana Club, a member of Historic Hotels of America. We confirmed that it is indeed possible to read a Kindle in bright sunshine as we followed the path of a downloaded walking tour of the Art Deco district of Miami's South Beach. The first time I visited Miami (January 1969 for Superbowl III), what are today's trendy Art Deco hostelries were then derelict senior citizen apartment hotels. I must say, those structures clean up nicely.

Little did I suspect that three weeks later I'd be back in Florida, this time for the opening night of the New World Center, a Frank Gehry designed concert hall in Miami Beach that is home to the New World Symphony academy, founded by Michael Tilson Thomas. I was reading the WSJ in an Arlington, VA, Starbucks and saw an article about the new hall, which was to open five days hence. Alert reader that I am, I hauled out the trusty laptop and snagged one of the three remaining unsold seats and booked a flight. It is seldom that I am blown away, but this structure and its adjacent concert park have set a trend that will affect live musical performances for many years to come. The angled acoustic baffles double as projection screens, and select performances are simulcast on the exterior on an 80-ft. tall section designed for that purpose. Awesome.

In a brilliant stroke of timing, the day I left DC for Florida 8 inches of snow fell in Washington. On the downside, I had only 48 hours to spend in Florida.

Valentine's Day got off to a fiery start, literally, when a neighbor, a young Indian man, got up early to prepare "breakfast in bed" for his sweetheart. His lack of culinary experience became evident to all of us when firetrucks poured into the neighborhood at 7:10 a.m. to douse a kitchen fire. I'm sure his "valentine" will never forget it, either.

I spent my birthday with best pals Karen and Rob in Staunton, Va., at the Stonewall Jackson Hotel, another member of Historic Hotels of America. In a tribute to locally-born silent film star William Haines, we watched Brown of Harvard, the movie that made him a Hollywood idol in the 1920s.

Also in February I received a surprise invitation to play the newly restored Steinway concert grand piano at the Woodrow Wilson House on S Street in Washington, DC. The nearly 100-year-old instrument is used these days for concerts in the Wilson House parlor, but it had graced the private quarters of the White House while Wilson was in office. What a thrill to play the same piano on which the wild Australian-born pianist Percy Grainger (composer of Country Gardens) had played popular songs for Wilson and his wife.

During the winter months I hosted and participated in concerts by the Washington Symphonic Brass and Capital Wind Symphony, two fine Washington-area arts groups that make very loud music. The former presented a piece played on tuned conch shells. I swear I'm not making this up.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Spring 2011

The spring months were a flurry of musical performances, festivals and concert series hosting: Cathedral Brass, National Concert Band, Ars Nova Chamber Orchestra -- not to mention a handbell massed-ringing event in Richmond.

On Easter weekend it was my pleasure to meet Megan, the wife of Airman Clayton Bender, to whom I served as a mentor of sorts during his days as a high school saxophonist and percussionist. I was reminded of how quickly young people mature during a stint in the military, and it was a pleasure to enjoy a meal and visit with a young couple who have their entire future ahead of them.

On a sad note, my friend Karen's partner Marshall succumbed to cancer after five difficult months of treatment. During the time Karen was visiting his relatives shortly thereafter, I hopped up to NYC, where she and I passed a splendid afternoon at the Morgan Library. This was my first visit since the original Italianate structure had undergone a recent top-to-bottom refurbishment.

In late May I was pleasantly startled by my mother's sharp memory, as she related stories of my youth (flattering and otherwise) during a trip to Winchester, where we used to go on shopping excursions in the 1950s and 1960s, before the age of enclosed shopping malls. She helped me recall entire divisions of lost memories, such as the fact that I would spend an entire half day at G&M Music perusing piano music while the rest of our brood bought clothes. These days the main shopping street has been turned into a handsome pedestrian mall.

I rounded out the month by participating in recording sessions with a baritone and soprano, yours truly on piano. The next day it was my privilege to work with the fine Russian cellist Miron Yampolsky.

In June I made a recording of piano and organ duos with local pianist Amy LaCivita and left the very next day to escort two dozen senior citizens (Rob well excepted) on a three-day excursion to Staunton. Thanks to Rob's technical expertise (he converted two VHS format silent films of William Haines to DVDs), our motorcoach was transformed into a 1920s era movie palace for screenings of Brown of Harvard and West Point. Who knew Joan Crawford also starred in silent films? The house in Staunton in which Haines was born still stands. We tore up the town, known as the Queen City of the Shenandoah, patronizing restaurants, cocktail lounges, movie theaters, taking in a performance at the fine Blackfriar's Shakespeare Theater (below), touring the Woodrow Wilson birthplace and toddling our way through the town as I led several architectural walking tours. We finished in style as Rob and I drove the group through the Museum of Frontier Culture grounds on two 8-seater golf carts. Spirits were high, and I mean that literally, as I am always astonished at how much alcohol assists in helping our valued seniors get through the day. This was a group of mostly Presbyterians, and I think they were trying to make up for the practice of substituting grape juice for wine in celebrating communion. The other thing that astonishes me is how much money they spend. Remind me to have a serious talk with my mother.

The next thing I knew, the summer solstice was upon us.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Summer 2011

Six days after herding that group of seniors through the Shenandoah Valley, I found myself landing in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with another batch -- this time for a tour of the Canadian Maritimes. We literally lurched our way through the Atlantic in two flimsy fishing boats on a whale-watching excursion, motored our way through the spectacular scenery of Cape Breton, where they speak the oddest French. Our visit to the restored Fortress of Louisbourg (above, sort of a Canadian Williamsburg) on Cape Breton began in the heaviest fog I've ever experienced. We watched the tides recede at New Brunswick's Bay of Fundy, kicked up a ruckus on Prince Edward Island just days before the newly married royals arrived (Charlottetown never looked spiffier) and enjoyed a fine Canada Day parade followed by fireworks over the harbor in Halifax.

The highlight of this trip was a stupendous performance of the Nova Scotia Royal International Tattoo, more than two hours of performance pleasure from a cast of nearly a thousand.

In July I completed the piano/organ recording project with pianist Amy LaCivita, just prior to her hand surgery, a real trauma for any pianist. Mid-month I accompanied a vocal studio performance of Tom Lehrer songs, including The Masochism Tango. For the uninitiated, here's a clip of this infamous song performed by the polymath Lehrer himself:

Against my better judgment, for the first time ever I took on an adult beginner piano student, but it has turned into a rewarding experience as well as a challenge, since I do not have experience teaching beginners. If, however, any of you hear me speaking of the possibility of teaching beginning children to play the piano, just shoot me on sight. My life insurance is all paid up.

In August I was a guest of Lisa and Bill, who live on the banks of the Potomac north of Mount Vernon during the summer months. Bill treated us to a splendid motorboat excursion to a graveyard of dozens of sunken wooden steamships at Mallows Bay along the Maryland shore, opposite the Quantico Marine base. Today plants, fish and birds serve as squatters over and under the abandoned hulls (below). The history of the ships is one of the quirkier chapters of our nation's military heritage.

Three days later things went to hell. On August 21 I tripped on a patch of grass (not a typo) and lost some acreage of flesh from my forehead and the knuckles of my right hand to the surface of a concrete sidewalk.

Well, honestly.

Skin grafts restored my forehead to its natural beauty, but I can still admire the scar tissue on my fingers. Two days later Virginia experienced a rare earthquake, this one registering 5.9 on the Richter scale. The Washington Monument remains closed to tourists, and National Cathedral suffered $5 million in structural damage. Security camera footage shows the Washington Monument shaking and people trying to escape as the earthquake hits. The quake lasted a full minute.

Two weeks after that we were subject to extreme rains and flooding on September 8 (6 inches of rain in five hours), with the tragic consequence of the drowning death of the 12-year-old son of a colleague. I played organ for that difficult funeral.

On a brighter note Rob and I enticed our friends Mark and Mary to join us for a romp through southwest Virginia over the Labor Day weekend. Trooper that he is, Mark agreed to come, even though he had recently undergone heel surgery. He used what looked like an elevated skateboard to support his left foot, and I even talked him into letting me push him through a museum while he was seated in a wheel chair. It's amazing how much control you have when pushing someone around in a wheelchair, victim be damned. We attended a taping of the PBS "Songs of the Mountains" bluegrass television series in Marion, Va., just shy of Tennessee. We holed up at the handsomely restored 1920s vintage General Francis Marion Hotel, adjacent to the Lincoln Theater (below), where the PBS taping took place. The morning after the TV taping we met most of the performers over breakfast at the hotel, including Jimmy Fortune, a former member of the Statler Brothers, who, by amazing coincidence, hailed from Staunton, Va. He treated us strangers as if we were family. Amazing. Note: look for our smiling faces when the show airs next July.

We headed back north to Roanoke, where we enjoyed the fine hospitality of the recently restored Hotel Roanoke (below), although what I remember most was drinking wine and playing cards in the Pine Room hotel bar. I chalk this up to the bad influence of having palled around with too many Presbyterian senior citizens in June.

We were in Roanoke to visit an exhibit of TV and movie cars at the Va. Museum of Transportation. Just ask us about Ecto-1 (Ghostbusters), the Little General (Dukes of Hazard) and any number of others, plus a half dozen steam locomotives. High culture, this travel business. To Mary's great credit, she smiled and pretended to look interested.

We spent a third night perched on a hilltop at the Mimslyn Hotel in Luray (Historic Hotels of America). The best features are the basement pub and outdoor swimming pool set in the sprawling grounds in the back. Even a sprinkling rain couldn't dampen our enthusiasm for the mountain scenery on the drive home.

Autumn 2011

September was a month to sober up from the frivolity of summer activity. All of the musical groups with which I am associated resumed rehearsals in September, compounded by the crunch of Hebrew High Holidays in late September and early October this year. Oy.

On Columbus Day I trekked out to Leesburg, my home town, to visit the Balls Bluff Civil War site along the banks of the Potomac. Unlike in the days of my youth, this small battle site and National Cemetery is now located in a residential neighborhood, a strange juxtaposition of history and modern suburban living. Eleven days later there was a major reenactment of the battle (above), exactly 150 years after Confederate troops sent Union forces packing from that very spot.

On October 22 I took advantage of a rare opportunity to play jazz piano in a public performance with saxophonist Irvin Peterson and a drummer and bassist from the U.S. Army Band. Pure pleasure. Irvin plays soprano saxophone with the best of them, and he is a true musical polymath. A former Marine, he serves as organist/choirmaster at an Episcopal church and sings with the National Cathedral Choir.

In order to enjoy the fall foliage, I squeezed in an overnight excursion to Lexington, Va., to take in the sights of the Shenandoah Valley. After a cadet-led walking tour of the Virginia Military Institute campus, we poked around the handsome town of Lexington before heading south to Natural Bridge and its newest attraction, Foam Henge! (below), a full-scale replica of one of England's major tourist draws -- only fashioned from  styrofoam, as the name says. Better than you'd think, but it does beggar the question, WHY?

The drive from Natural Bridge to Lynchburg via a Virginia Scenic Byway was a mountainous, curvy splendor of fall scenery. Rob's new olive colored Fiat 500, with the sun roof open and windows down, was the perfect way to experience it. I watched as he conducted a sort of private festival of gear shifting and steering wheel gymnastics. We overnighted at the handsome Craddock Terry Hotel in Lynchburg, a favorite hostelry and another Historic Hotels of America property. It used to be a shoe factory. I'm not making this up (see proof in photo below).

On October 29 it snowed -- no surprise, since we had already had an earthquake (August) and a major flood (September). Mother Nature was on a roll. However, when my walking buddy Jane and I were traversing the Appalachian Trail near Paris, Va., on November 2, we were surprised to see that snow still covered the path. Undeterred, we trudged on. I made sure not to trip over any errant patches of bare grass.

It was my pleasure to play pipe organ for a Capital Wind Symphony performance of Richard Strauss's Feierliche Einzug (Solemn Procession) with REALLY LOUD brass and timpani. My ears are still ringing, even though the performance took place back on November 13.

A few days later Rob and I jetted west to spend Thanksgiving week in San Diego. Our room at the Manchester Grand Hyatt commanded a fine view of the harbor 24 floors above the Embarcadero and the harborfront walking path (I wish I could have brought that path home with me). A walk along the harbor was a fine way to start the day. In my lifelong tradition of trying best to balance high culture with more down to earth pursuits, we had our first dinner at a honky-tonk sailor's dive doing business as Kansas City Barbeque, with authentic styrofoam bowls full of chili. And plastic spoons. Complete with plastic tablecloths.

Man vs. Food at Hash House a Go-Go:

We lost our heads and breakfasted at the venerable Hash House a Go-Go in Hillcrest. This restaurant was actually featured in an episode of Man vs. Food. A popular breakfast dish is Sage Fried Chicken & Waffles (above). This menu item features massive bacon waffles (not little pieces of bacon bits, but an entire thick cut bacon slice in each waffle) topped by two fried chicken breasts, pierced by a foot high sprig of rosemary, for a festive touch. Clutching my belly, I walked off breakfast by footing it all the way down and over to Balboa Park. Although neither of us ordered the chicken waffles pictured, still -- it was not a meal for the faint of heart. I do not exaggerate.

The weather was splendid (what do you expect from San Diego?), and we caught an unusual exhibit of vintage VW cars at the Balboa Park Automobile Museum. The improvised free standing toilet of a Westfalia split-screen camper, complete with attached tented striped awning for privacy, was a highlight, along with a dozen or so Indian brand vintage motorcycles. In our down-market breakfast tradition, we stopped by the classic Clayton's Coffee House, a venerated diner in Coronado, before our museum-sponsored walking tour that ended at the celebrated Hotel Del Coronado. We spent Thanksgiving Day in Old Town, the oldest spot in California. Our main meal was a standout of culinary skill provided by the folks at the Cosmopolitan Hotel (below), which dates from 1869, just nineteen years after California became a state in 1850.

To prove the saying that no good deed goes unpunished, in mid-December I was involved in a 4-car pileup on the Dulles Greenway toll road driving my mother back from a luncheon outing so that she could visit two of her favorite travel pals over the holidays. I was car #3 of four, with no way to avoid getting crushed between cars #2 and #4. Could have been worse. No injuries, plus I was driving my mother's car (!), not my own.

In mid December I hopped up to Boston, taking in a Christmas jazz concert at historic King's Chapel, an architectural tour of the Athenaeum (a 19th-century private library, shown at right) and a Beethoven's birthday  performance at the New England Conservatory's venerated Jordan Hall (below), one of our nation's acoustic treasures. We stayed at the Omni Parker House hotel, where Charles Dickens hosted Saturday morning literary seminars, JFK proposed to Jackie, and culinary classics such as Parker House rolls and Boston Cream pie were invented by the kitchen staff.

I was able to fit in a post-Christmas visit to the Brandywine Valley of Pennsylvania and Delaware, visiting Longwood Gardens, Winterthur and the Brandywine River Museum. Standouts were a six-foot wide painting of a pig (Jamie Wyeth used 17 tubes of paint for this one) and colored dancing fountains at the DuPont Longwood estate (much better than it sounds -- vast wealth generally produces effects that are not only spectacular, but tasteful; check it out).

On a whim, the nose of my SmartCar led to the parking lot of the Herr's potato chip factory, where we joined a tour, during which we learned that it takes only 6 minutes for a whole potato to become a potato chip (this excursion was for educational purposes only, but the free samples were a nice touch).

On December 31 I was on a plane to Miami/Coral Gables/Coconut Grove to celebrate the New Years holiday, ending the year 2011 as it began, in sunny Florida. There was a poignant moment inside the Coral Gables Congregational Church, directly opposite the Biltmore Hotel (lobby with elaborate bird cages, at right). The church had no pipe organ, but was kitted out with an impressive Bösendorfer concert grand piano, which reminded me of the first one I ever played, on the campus of Florida Southern, my alma mater. These outrageously expensive Austrian pianos are distinguished by extra bass keys and a sharp angle in the curve of the case. My piano professor, Robert MacDonald, is married to an Austrian, and he was responsible for bringing such a magnificent instrument to the college. He retired earlier this year and was honored with a tribute gala in October, which I regret not being able to attend.

Love and peace to all in the New Year,