Thursday, December 23, 2010

Winter 2010

December 16, 2010: As I start this review of 2010, we are having our first measurable snowfall of the season. Last winter was the snowiest on record, with a total accumulation of 73". By January 1, 2010, we already had 24" of snow on the ground, and it never melted away. Thanks to bracing temperatures, the ground was white from mid-December through March.

January 5-6-7 found me in Palm Beach, Florida, where I was fortunate enough to be working on a design project. Commuting back and forth between DC and Florida would afford me many welcome escapes from a cruel winter.

I'm so easy to spot: second row, third from the right. Click to enlarge.

In mid-January I was performing on stage at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. I was conductor of the Vienna Choral Society, a community chorus in the northern Virginia area, and we had performed “The Armed Man,” a moving choral expression of the vagaries of war and hope for lasting peace. In NYC we joined several other community choruses who had recently performed the work to form a 200+ choir supported by a professional 60-piece orchestra. The young neighbor of composer Karl Jenkins flew all the way from Wales to sing the boy soprano part. There was a sold out house for the performance on MLK Day.

By late January I couldn’t take the winter weather any more. On the 26th my travel pal Rob and I fled to Puerto Rico, where we holed up at the El Convento Hotel in old San Juan. The economy had taken its toll on this favorite winter playground. Several famed restaurants and hotels were shuttered, and those still open were sparsely populated. Naturally, we rallied to the rescue, spending vast sums of cash to shore up the local economy. The centuries old El Convento structure had once served as a convent, but I don’t think the nuns would recognize the place today, with a roof-top hot tub and the daily wine and cheese parties for hotel guests. Their former chapel now serves as a ballroom.

February was especially cruel weather wise (see photo above of my street in Reston). A snow storm on the 5th and 6th caused Sunday services at Vienna Pres to be canceled for only the second time in the 19 years I’ve worked there.

Mother nature was obviously dissatisfied with her earlier attempts, because right on the heels of the month’s earlier snowfall we had another winter storm February 9 and 10 (the DC area had 43" of snow in February alone). I like to think I’m made of pretty tough stuff, but I snapped. I couldn’t bear being snowed in a third time, so I fired up the computer and bought a ticket back to San Juan, jumped into my car and made a bee line to Dulles airport, hoping to be on my way south before they closed the airport. Three hours and twenty minutes after purchasing a ticket, I was on my way to Puerto Rico – without a hotel reservation. A few hours later I stepped out into 80 degree weather and took a taxi back to El Convento. Fortunately, they had a room available. I sent and answered E-mails with my feet dangling in the rooftop plunge pool. I had not even told my mother I had fled to San Juan, and no one was the wiser. I highly recommend this tactic for battling an aggressive winter. After a couple of nights in San Juan I rented a car and drove to the western part of the island, where I spent my life’s savings renting a villa for one night at the strangely named Horned Dorset Primavera. I had a two story townhouse with two huge bathrooms (see photo above), bizarrely furnished with a Moroccan chandelier, Venetian wall mirror, walk-in marble shower and a free-standing tub with antique plumbing fixtures and a floor lamp. The bedroom, dining room and living room were furnished with antique British plantation furniture, not a piece of it comfortable enough to sit on. No one suffers like Terry. Broke, but restored to mental health, I flew home to the land of Snowmageddon.

I spent my 61st birthday at Foti’s restaurant (a favorite, photo below) in Culpeper, Va. with best friends Rob and Karen. Management allowed us to play a few rounds of cards at our table as we dreamed of an early spring.

Another visit to the job site in Palm Beach helped me limp through March with sanity intact.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Spring 2010

April was a blur of activity, starting with a two-day trip up to the Big Apple followed by a Handbell Festival in Hampton, Virginia. I continue to conduct an adult handbell group at Vienna Pres, and I am inordinately proud of their accomplishments. I’m not sure if you can imagine the sound of hundreds of festival ringers playing the same piece simultaneously. I will say no more except to state that it is an acquired taste.

I sent a group of rabid tango fans off to Buenos Aires in late April. This was the first time I arranged a group trip to a foreign destination that I did not escort personally. The same number of people made the return trip as those who departed on April 20, so I consider the trek a success.

In late April I began working with an aging neighbor who was once an accomplished violinist before he began losing his hearing. We started working our way through violin sonatas by Mozart and Handel, a weekly activity we continue to this day. By mid summer we felt sufficiently rehearsed to invite a gaggle of neighbors to hear us. David was obviously proud of his improvement and the opportunity to perform again.

In May travel pal Rob and I headed south to Atlanta to visit an exhibit at the High Museum: The Allure of the Automobile. As serious fans of classic cars, we were in our element. Above is a 1933 Pierce Arrow. At the time, we had no idea we'd encounter this same car again in August, after it had been returned to its home in California. Strange, but true.

In mid-June I escorted a group of travelers to Ireland, where we enjoyed the best weather in years, a string of perfect sunny and clear days. These were especially long days, as well, since we were there for the summer solstice. It got dark around 11:00 pm. The Euro was at its lowest point of the year, worth only $1.19 (up to $1.33 at this writing). Were we lucky, or what? Below is Ross Castle located along the Ring of Kerry.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Summer 2010

Summer began with the Facebook debacle. I joined in order to view a friend’s photo albums, and overnight I received 172 requests to be “friends.” Those I did not respond to immediately got pissed off at me, and I felt as if I were becoming public enemy No. 1, instead of anyone’s friend. In desperation, I pulled the plug on the whole thing, my stint on Facebook lasting less than 48 hours. Sheesh.

The great Virginian and polymath Thomas Jefferson died on July 4 (1826), so I paid homage to him by visiting Poplar Forest, a private retreat from his public life built on land inherited from his wife’s family near Lynchburg. Designed by Jefferson in neo-Palladian style, the house was decked out in bunting on this July 4 weekend, the anniversary of the great man’s death. Years of restoration work have removed architectural alterations by later owners. All that remains is for the house to be furnished.

An overnight stay at Lynchburg’s first-rate Craddock Terry Hotel (member of Historic Hotels of America) capped a great weekend that had begun by participating in a two piano eight hands version of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” during morning worship services at Vienna Presbyterian.

The numbers on the doors are a sure sign that the Craddock Terry Hotel's earlier life was as a shoe factory.

Another house that had just undergone recent restoration work was Fallingwater, the Kaufmann family’s weekend retreat about 90 minutes east of Pittsburgh. Florida Southern, my alma mater, had been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, so I had a connection to the architect. Since the house was built in 1938, the cantilevered terraces had continued to sag to the point that structural restoration became necessary.

A remarkable thing about Fallingwater is that it is a Wright house still in its original setting (many of his houses have been moved) with all original furnishings, books and artwork intact. Wright designed not just the house, but all the furniture, cabinetry – even the rugs. And they are all on display in their original arrangements. The guest house addition (1939) was of particular interest, and some diligent sleuthing led me to be able to find the location of the Kaufmann family burial vault (unmarked on any site map), with massive bronze doors designed by Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti.

While in the Alleghenies, I took a 32-mile day trip on the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad, riding in a vintage passenger car behind a Baldwin coal-fired steam locomotive dating from 1916. I was testing the waters for a possible 80th birthday excursion for my mother come October.

I returned to Pennsylvania in August for a stay at the Bedford Springs Resort, a social spa destination with original structures from 1806. President James Buchanan made the hotel his “Summer White House” from 1857-1861; the original desk from his room is displayed in the lobby. The hotel itself is a connected string of seven buildings running more than 600 feet in length.

After its closure in 1987, the historic property had become derelict and was slated for demolition. A last minute rally (and $120 million) saved the property, which reopened in 2007. To round out the spa circuit, I revisited both the Greenbrier (WV) and Homestead (VA) resorts, which had been favored golfing destinations of my parents. I was able to tour the once secret "bunker" underground government facility at the Greenbrier. My base for this excursion was the Inn at Gristmill Square in Warm Springs, VA, near the Garth-Newel music center, which I first visited when Luca and Arlene DiCecco ran it.

In late August I traveled to San Francisco to hear Danielle Talamantes sing her first Violetta in La Traviata. Her performance was unforgettable, both dramatically and vocally, and I was happy to represent the home team as an ambassador from Vienna. I met up with her mother Pat and sister Angela, who had driven over from Nevada.

My travel pal Rob (and vocal student of Ms. Talamantes) and I are diehard car afficionados, so we visited the Blackhawk Museum in the East Bay area to see their astonishing collection of million-dollar vintage automobiles (classic Mercedes cabriolet at right). We were stunned to see the same 1933 Pierce Arrow that had been on display in Atlanta at the High Museum. It is a testament to the drawing power of Ms. Talamantes that we tore ourselves away in time to make the curtain for her opera performance.

Cars continued to play a part in my summer, as a fine collection of vintage Jaguars were assembled at Reston Town Center on Labor Day weekend.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Autumn 2010

In late September the installation of the Palm Beach residential design job took place, culminating sixteen months of work. I was a bit like giving birth, since I had specified every door knob, floor tile, stone surface, cabinetry, towel bar and even TP holders. It was also the first time I had designed fireplace surrounds and a residential wine bar room (complete with iron gates, sand textured walls and a papered ceiling). I am especially proud of the design of the office fireplace, and the craftsmanship of the local artisans who fabricated it.

In late October we celebrated my mother’s 80th birthday with a trip to Western Maryland and Pennsylvania, including my aunt Clara (my mother’s sister-in-law and best friend) on the trip. We especially enjoyed the food at the Bedford Springs Resort (lunch and breakfast), but we had mother’s birthday dinner at the nearby Jean Bonnet Tavern (est. 1762), a handsome stone inn. An unexpected adventure was my participation in righting the derailment of the steam locomotive that powered us through the spectacular scenery of western Maryland when the fall foliage was at its peak.

I’m guessing not many people take a day trip to San Francisco from the east coast, but that’s exactly what I did in early November, in order to top off my frequent flier account with United Airlines (to maintain premiere status). I spent ten and a half hours on the ground, taking in a fascinating architectural walking tour led by a local professor. Highly recommended. I spent the rest of the time following a self-guided walking tour downloaded onto my recently purchased Kindle, to which I’ve become unnaturally addicted. By 11:00 pm I was on the red-eye flight back to DC.

In mid November I bought a Smart Car, shown here at actual size, prompting me to purchase my first ever vanity license plate: AKSHL SZ.

It's more an adult toy than a car, actually. Paddle shifters, 3 cylinders and a whopping 70 hp. But at a mere 8 feet in length, you can park it anywhere.

I spent Thanksgiving week in Santa Monica, California, sporting around the L.A. area in a rented Smart Car convertible (park it anywhere!). Travel pal Rob (and fellow car nerd) and I took in the L.A. Auto Show. While the convention center lies a scant 14 miles east of Santa Monica, it took two hours and ten minutes to get there. I had the demented notion that traveling across L.A. during rush hour on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving was a good idea. I would be proved wrong, so wrong. Highlights of the rest of the trip included the recently restored Griffith Observatory, Thanksgiving dinner aboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach (Rob’s aunt had sailed on this ship in August, 1954), a ferry excursion over to Catalina Island, a visit to the recently restored and reopened Getty Villa Museum of Antiquities, and a day trip to Malibu and the Paradise Cove Pier. Not to mention a walking tour of the Venice Beach boardwalk and canals. Below is Avalon harbor on Catalina Island.

December has been the usual blur of musical performances. I have practically lived in a tuxedo and can probably play most of the harpsichord part for Handel’s Messiah from memory. Highlights have been performances of Hanukkah music at the Lansdown Leisure World as a warm up to a Hanukkah concert at Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation, where I have worked for more than 20 years. The pair of Christmas concerts (with full orchestra) at Vienna Presbyterian Church took place last weekend (I played four other concerts that weekend, no lie). Vienna Pres has furnished a 2-octave set of hand chimes to kick off an outreach project at Cameron Glen nursing home in Reston, begun November 27 under the leadership of Laura Macqueen, a member of my Exsultate Handbell choir. Vienna Pres bell choir participants (myself included) assist Laura in this worthwhile effort that gets residents out of their rooms and away from the TV.

All this frantic seasonal activity requires some down time, so I’m looking forward to a trip to Delray Beach, Florida, to celebrate the New Year and just unplug for a few days. Home base will be the Colony Hotel (built in 1926, another member of Historic Hotels of America; photo above). Even though I have a Kennedy Center Messiah performance coming up tonight and five Christmas Eve services at Vienna Pres, we’ve gotten over the hump of the Winter Solstice, and I take comfort in the fact that each subsequent day has a few more minutes of daylight than the one before.

As for words of wisdom, my favorite quote of the year:
“Inside every old person is a young person who wonders what the hell happened.”

Peace and love during the holiday season.


P.S. The Sunday after Christmas I spent an overnight in NYC. Snow had followed me up the coast, but I was unaware of the amount of snowfall forecast. I slept all the way from DC , so I was surprised to see a city really blanketed in snow upon arrival. My purpose was to meet Robert and Ingrid, who were staying a week in a time share opposite Carnegie Hall. We headed to the Campbell Apartment (see photo) a luxe bar at Grand Central Terminal for drinks and reminiscing.

As we were leaving, we stepped into the cavernous main room of Grand Central Station to see the holiday laser show. To the music of Duke Ellington’s “Take The A-Train,” lasers projected onto the ceiling two commuter trains arriving from opposite directions. The trains pulled to a stop, and a reindeer leapt out of each one and crossed over to the other train. Then a laser beam traced the outline of one of the zodiac constellations painted on the ceiling. The crab (Cancer) sprang to life and became a train conductor, sidling down the center aisle of the car, punching the reindeers’ ticket stubs with its claws.

Delighted tourists supported each other as they leaned over backward to gaze at the overhead display 125 ft. above their heads. The music of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite filled the enormous room. As “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” began, the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building sprouted arms, bowed to each other, and began waltzing across the ceiling. The show ended with giant sprigs of mistletoe appearing over the heads of the commuters and tourists. Cell phones came out of purses and pockets as tiny flashes captured affectionate real-life kisses and lingering hugs by those who had just watched the show. New York City never fails to inspire.