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Bath County, Va.: Singing Despite the Rain

By Linton Weeks
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 25, 2008

On a dreamy Friday afternoon, I am checking out the Jefferson Pools in Warm Springs, Va., and a toad-choker of a thunderstorm is dumping buckets of rain. No wonder this place is called Bath County.

But I'm not here to soak in the mineral-spring pools or play the Robert Trent Jones course at the nearby Homestead. I have come to be bathed in an evening of fine music and food. And, for that, I drive up the winding entryway at the Garth Newel Music Center, a rarefied rural retreat that offers classical performances and gourmet dining.

For more than 30 years, the center -- a 114-acre erstwhile horse farm and Girl Scout camp set against a rise in the Alleghenies -- has been home to a handful of musicians and a master chef who share their creations with local folks and those willing to make the trek.

By now the rain has stopped, and the setting sun casts golden light on the green hills. Fruit trees are in pink-and-white bloom. Even the quiet is quiet.

On this late-April weekend, the center is kicking off its 2008 season with a three-day concert series, the Archduke Music Holiday. For the next eight months, there will be celebrations nearly every weekend, including a chamber music festival, a champagne soiree in July and a world-premiere composition by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Paul Moravec in August. All in all, the center produces about 50 events a year; many are at night and accompanied by a fancy meal.

Although patrons usually dress casually, many are in black tie this evening, as is the opening-night tradition. Some arrive by car, and others stroll along a path from the nearby guest lodge, a 1924 manor house converted into a bed-and-breakfast.

It's a mature crowd tonight. Cocktails at 6. Concert at 7. Dinner around 8.

There is a campy -- as in summer camp -- feel to the center. The property, with its white wooden buildings separated by swards of grass and sturdy trees, was once owned by William Sergeant Kendall, a Yale art professor. He named it Garth Newel, which he said was Welsh for "new home," and trained Arabian horses here. When he died in 1938, his wife, Christine Herter Kendall, turned the property over to the Girl Scouts for a camp. Eventually, the scouts moved on. When Christine died in 1981, she left instructions for the establishment of the music center.

On this Friday evening, everyone gathers at Herter Hall, the old horse arena retooled as a fellowship hall with great acoustics. Kent Ford and his wife, Ellen, have been coming for years. They love the music and the food. And the singularity of Bath County. "There are no traffic lights in the whole county," says Ford, who retired from the Carnegie Institution of Washington. "It's a diverse population."

Herter Hall is a big room with wooden walls and floors and fans whirring overhead. Candles flicker in the large windowsills as the gray day fades to black. Old-timers recall a snake that once lived in the rafters. Except for the grand piano and harpsichord onstage, the place looks like a church camp rec hall.

Most of the events are arranged like this one. Together the concert and dinner can run from $60 to $100 per person, depending on the night. Less expensive afternoon picnics and concerts are held occasionally.

After drinks, people take their seats. There are about 40 in the audience. The center's amiable director, Jacob Yarrow, welcomes the crowd. There is no mention of turning off cellphones, perhaps because reception is so spotty around here anyway. In a few minutes, the resident piano quartet takes the stage to mannerly applause. Violinist Teresa Ling, a house musician for the past 10 years, gives a short presentation on the evening's first piece, a Haydn quartet.

It's like a mini-course in music appreciation. She warns of the two loud notes at the beginning of the piece that the composer used to get everyone's attention. As it turns out, they are not that loud.

The second offering is a trio by Schumann. And, in the same way that flowers smell sweeter in the wild, the music sounds lovelier amid the countrified silence.

After the music, people mingle for a bit before picking spots at large round tables. Ed Edelsack and his wife, Charlotte, have come from Washington for the weekend. They heard about Garth Newel last year when Ling played at the Corcoran. The Edelsacks say they were tired of dealing with rats in their Glover Park yard -- not politicians, real rats -- so they hightailed it to this spot in western Virginia, about four hours from Washington. They are a font of recommendations: a local gem store for polished fossils, Sam Snead's Tavern in Hot Springs for drinks, the Water Wheel restaurant in Warm Springs for tournedos.

Finally, everyone is seated. They applaud again when the betoqued chef, Randy Wyche, emerges from the kitchen. He describes the meal he is about to serve. The first course, he says, is minted pea soup with scallop mousseline.

"What's mousseline?" someone shouts.

It's a sauce, Wyche explains. And the mint comes from the garden of viola player Evelyn Grau. People clap for Grau, who is sitting next to me.

Local resident Beth Eley, also at our table, says she probably wouldn't use mint in pea soup. "I like it in mint juleps," she says.

The meal is served. Conversation turns to politics, summer camps, music, art, literature, life decisions, fine food, good wine, dreams, desires and on and on.

"I always figured, as a musician, I would end up in a city," says Grau, who grew up in Huntsville, Ala.

Instead, she's making music in a county without stop lights. Life can take strange turns.

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