In 15th Season, Embassy Series Turns Concerts Into Cultural Bridges
In the realm of cultural diplomacy, Jerome Barry is an ambassador who hits all the right notes. Barry, a professional tenor, teacher and linguist, said the most effective form of diplomacy is cultural understanding and outreach — which is exactly what he strives for each year with the Embassy Series, a concert program he founded back in 1994.
Since then, the Embassy Series has grown in size and popularity, with each season featuring dozens of classical musicians performing in embassy and other international settings that showcase the particular country or composer of that performance.
“There are no politics involved — this is all cultural diplomacy,” Barry said of the series, which he continues to direct. “My feeling is that cultural diplomacy is something we need desperately nowadays, with our cultural economy, borders being blurred, and all the internationalization going on.”
To that end, the concert series has opened up more than 50 of the city’s embassies to Washington natives and tourists alike, who have experienced not only the music of different countries, but by extension their culture, history and people.
This unique lyrical endeavor — which began with only six embassies — is now in its 15th season and continues to grow geographically and musically more diverse each year. One season featured more than 45 embassies as host venues, but Barry has since scaled the list back. Some 20 embassies are lined up for the 2008-09 season, with more in the works.
Despite the increasing number of interested embassies and patrons, Barry said he wants to keep the focus simple: quality music in an intimate setting available to everyone. “The Embassy Series is a boutique, but it’s not snobby,” he told The Washington Diplomat. “We try to make it accessible to as many people as possible.”
At the same time, Barry said it’s crucial “to keep it intimate,” so attendees get an unadulterated feel for an unfamiliar culture. Some events are held at the ambassador’s residence and welcome as few as 30 guests, while others, such as the Embassy of Austria, can accommodate more than 300 in their chanceries.
The 2008-09 season kicks off Oct. 31 with a performance by soprano Katarina Michaelli at the Embassy of Slovakia. Other embassies currently scheduled are Israel, Iceland, Croatia, Poland, Turkey, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Australia, France, Senegal, Portugal and Argentina.
The tickets, ranging from to 0 per concert, also cover a reception or dinner that usually consists of the spotlighted country’s native cuisine. Barry noted that the cost is roughly equivalent to the price of a performance at the Kennedy Center. In fact, three of last year’s Embassy Series artists have played at the center. “I stress strongly that these concerts be of the highest quality,” Barry said.
Last season was the first to feature young pianists, several of whom placed at notable international piano competitions. Austrian pianist Matthias Soucek, for example, is the youngest winner of the International Brahms Competition in Germany.
Jazz was also included for the first time in the 2007 season, and with the tremendous response it received, Barry said there was no question about bringing it back this time around.
One such performance will commemorate jazz artist Ahmed Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records, who died in late 2006. Renowned performer Fahir Atakoglu will pay tribute to the prominent music magnate with a concert at the Turkish residence in December. “It is truly a special event — a historic event,” Barry noted.
Along with adding to the musical diversity, Barry said he also hopes to keep adding more countries and cultures each year. “This brings all kinds of people together — it entertains, but it also brings understanding,” said Barry, who is fluent in about a dozen languages. “We have to understand other people’s mindset, and the way to do that is through their culture.”
Along with the European countries that have been a staple since the beginning, the Embassy Series has steadily expanded to cover the Middle East, Asia and other parts of the world — including countries without the best of relations with the United States. For instance, Cuba, China and Venezuela joined the ranks in recent years. Laos, Colombia and Uzbekistan are debuting with the series this year, as is the African nation of Senegal. Barry said he hopes to add more sub-Saharan African embassies in the future as well.
Another trend he intends to continue is opening up “houses” and cultures that were once closed to American audiences — an exchange he described as mutually beneficial.
“People who perform here are treated well, shown a lot of respect and appreciation that they’ll remember when they return to their country,” Barry said. “They’re apostles of diplomacy. They’re how others learn about us. Our bottom line is that we’re promoting goodwill through the culture.”
For more information on the Embassy Series, please call (202) 625-2361 or visit www.embassyseries.org.
Art reflects life — and life, for many right now, is at war.
Through music, dance and theater, the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland in College Park tackles this subject with an “Art Responds to War” theme for its 2008-09 season lineup. But the theme isn’t limited to the performances on stage — the center is also planning a series of discussions titled “Artists as Activists, Performance as Politics,” in which the audience can converse with speakers and experts.
“We want to address the larger idea of social justice in the world,” said Ruth Waalkes, the center’s director of artistic initiatives. “This is just one way to get our community engaged with the international community.”
On Oct. 30, the string group Kronos Quartet begins “Art Responds to War” with the music of international composer George Crumb and Serbian-born composer Aleksandra Vrebalov. Crumb’s “Black Angels,” known as the Vietnam quartet since the 1970s, will be followed by the premiere of Vrebalov’s “…hold me neighbor, in this storm…” The Quartet returns Nov. 2 with radio broadcaster and writer David Barsamian and activist Diane Wilson as hosts.
Performances by David Dorfman the following week question the fine line between activism and terrorism in his multimedia dance titled “underground,” while the Aquila Theatre Company transplants Homer’s classic “The Iliad” to World War II Normandy in honor of Veteran’s Day. Rounding out the semester in December, the center’s own 500 Clown theater troupe debuts its second original production, “500 Clown and the Elephant Deal,” which takes a stab at corruption and dehumanization.
All performances in the “Art Responds to War” series include a discussion or meet-and-greet with the artists. For Dorfman and 500 Clown, a “creative dialogue” session with performers and directors is also scheduled the Monday preceding the performances. The center has held similar dialogues in conjunction with performances in the past, but this is the first time the discussions can be taken independently of the show.
“This grew from a pre-performance dialogue to something that can stand on its own,” Waalkes explained. “We hope to start a conversation, get people asking questions, and maybe even develop an opinion on matters.”
Beyond war, Waalkes said the center always tries to incorporate a range of artistic styles from around the globe. For example, Saudi Arabia, Estonia, South Africa, Germany and Mexico are all represented musically this season. Composer and performer Simon Shaheen leads his ensemble in a fusion of Arab music beginning in September, followed by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir in November. Looking ahead to 2009, the center will feature performances by South African vocalist Vusi Mahlasela, the German-based piano group ATOS Trio, the Celtic-style Ensemble Galilei, and the Sones de México Ensemble with their traditional folk music the week of Cinco de Mayo.
Meanwhile, Chinese Theatre Works begins the center’s free series on Tuesdays called “Take Five” with its collection of Chinese opera, shadow puppetry and toy theater. Also keep an eye out in October for “The Grand Inquisitor,” the story of Christ returning to the world during the Spanish Inquisition directed by Peter Brook and adapted from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov.”
For more information, please call (301) 405-ARTS (2787) or visit www.claricesmithcenter.umd.edu.
About the Author
Valerie Cooper is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.