Embassy Series concerts promote understanding through music

By Megan Buerger
Thursday, October 21, 2010

Jerome Barry wanted to shake up the District's music scene.

After a 20-year career traveling the world as an accomplished baritone, he thought music had the power to cross cultural boundaries and unite people. In 1994, Barry founded the Embassy Series, a collection of concerts from October to June at cultural centers throughout the District. His belief was that music, as a universal language, could facilitate peace through "musical diplomacy."

In its 17th year, the series has collaborated with 57 embassies and nearly 1,000 musicians. Barry said he never dreamed it would be this successful.

He was born into a musical family in Dorchester, Mass., and his passion for singing began when he was 7.

"I remember singing 'Ave Maria' in the Boston Common and getting paid $60," he said. "Back then, that was a good chunk of money."

Barry got a bachelor's degree in modern languages from Northeastern University and a master's from Tufts University, while also studying at the Boston Conservatory. Now, at 70, he can speak 11 languages fluently and sing in 27.

Shortly after college, Barry met his wife, Lisette, and the two quickly uprooted for Europe. Over the next 10 years, Barry studied and performed in Rome, Germany and Israel, where he taught at the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem and sang with the Israel National Opera. Along the way, they had two daughters, Monique and Daniella.

Upon returning to the United States in 1974, Barry and his family settled in the District. He got a job at a temple in Silver Spring but missed the joy his musical career had brought him.

In 1981, he formed the Washington Music Ensemble, which performed contemporary music around the District and was well-received for nearly 13 years. But Barry wanted to do more.

According to Barry, embassy concerts were not always hot ticket events. Ambassadors, reluctant to open their doors to the public, typically only extended invitations to D.C. heavyweights such as congressmen or White House officials.

"They were only inviting people who weren't going," he said. "And I thought, 'We've got to open this to the public.' " The series' first year had six concerts. Now, it averages about 24.

"It was difficult at the beginning with the more exotic embassies," Barry said. "Diplomacy is a touchy subject. We had to present our idea in such a way that they trusted us. Now, our success is based on trust."

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