Axis of Engagement


Embassy Series Sings Praises of Cooperation Over Confrontation

If the phrase “can’t we all just get along” is music to your ears, then the Embassy Series is playing your tune. Since 1994, the series, founded by musician Jerome Barry, has hosted more than 300 concerts in 55 embassies — regardless of their political relationships with the United States. As a result, Barry has been able to expose Washingtonians to the cultures of countries otherwise cut off to people in America.

Although Barry has forged relations with Afghanistan, China, Cuba and Venezuela, he is quick to point out that the series is not politically motivated. “We’re trying to make inroads where some of that macrocosmic foreign policy sometimes is a little bit wanting or we don’t have adequate information,” he said. “We do things sort of on a very grassroots level, people to people, and generally no matter which country we go to, we don’t speak about politics. Even if there are some problems existing on the global front, we just discuss culture.”

That’s why his organization is the only arts group in the United States that has worked with the Cuban Interests Section, established in 1977 to perform diplomatic and consular activities in the absence of formal bilateral relations. In Barry’s eight-year relationship with the de facto embassy, they have put on nine concerts.

“When Cuba opens up, I’m going to be one of the first people going there, believe me,” said Barry, a baritone who sometimes performs in Embassy Series events. “And I will know a lot about it. I have never seen such wonderful treatment as you get from the Cubans.”

Barry also speaks fondly of a performance he arranged at the Afghan ambassador’s residence in 2006, at a time when so much U.S. attention was focused on Iraq and not Afghanistan. “They really just went way out for us. It was wonderful,” he recalled of the performance involving indigenous instruments.

Barry is open to working with Iran and is in talks with Iraq for upcoming seasons. It takes time to establish a rapport with any country, irrespective of its relationship with the White House or State Department, he said. “In the beginning, it’s about gaining trust: They didn’t know me and I didn’t know them.”

The 16th season of the Embassy Series kicked off Sept. 12 with a performance by Venezuelan flutist Marco Granados along with pianist Jeongeun Yom at the Venezuelan ambassador’s residence. That was followed by a Sept. 23 show at the Lithuanian Embassy with Barry highlighting songs composed in the Jewish ghetto in Vilnius during World War II. October concerts will feature music from Kazakhstan and Cuba; November includes two evenings of Bahraini music; and coming up Dec. 4, a rising star from Syria who doubles as a clarinetist and composer will perform at the Syrian ambassador’s residence.

When Barry came to Washington in 1974 after a decade of performing abroad, he noticed that during the Cold War, if it weren’t for the outreach of various impresarios, Americans would not have known much about the Soviet Union. That made him realize “we need to do more outreach to other peoples in a very non-confrontational way, and music was a very good way.”

“Washington was the center of the world politically, and yet culturally we still had a long way to go,” said Barry, who has degrees in literature and languages (he speaks more than 10). “I just felt there wasn’t enough involvement with many international type of activities, especially the embassies.”

So he began performing at embassies through the Washington Music Ensemble, which he founded with pianist Alan Mandel in 1981. Thirteen years later, he decided to start his own group, the Embassy Series.

In its first year, the series put on six concerts with a handful of embassies. Since then, Barry has worked with 800 artists, 150 ambassadors and 55 embassies of countries such as Argentina, Bahrain, Brazil, Egypt, Indonesia, Israel, Malaysia, Morocco, Tunisia, and 21 of the 27 European Union members. Three years ago, the Embassy Series schedule peaked at more than 40 shows. Now Barry prefers to keep the number more manageable; this season he’s arranged 22 concerts at 16 embassies and residences.

Barry starts working on the series’ next schedule a year in advance, selecting countries and events based on milestones — Chopin’s 200th birthday, for instance, which will be celebrated with a concert at the Polish Embassy on May 8, 2010 — and historical events such as the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night Nazis destroyed Jewish shops and synagogues.

He views the organization — voted in Frommer’s 2009 Washington guide as the best of D.C.’s international scene — as a kind of soft diplomacy operative. Barry works hard to treat artists well and hopes they return to their countries talking about their positive experience in the United States.

“I really feel in this global economy, the harbinger of better things to come is going to be through cultural exchange,” he said. “It really has always taken a back place, but it should be taking one of the foremost places in how we deal with people. We have to stop demonizing each other and have to start going into a very special mode of interpersonal interaction.”

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.