WHEN MOST people think about events at Washington's more than 170 embassies and diplomatic missions, they're picturing black-tie galas, stretch limos, servants passing fancy hors d'oeuvres, bold-face names and photos in the Style section's "Out & About" column. (Okay, it's either that or extremely dry cocktail parties where every discussion is bathed in foreign-policy nuance, but let's look on the bright side.) They're probably not thinking about embassies as tremendous cultural resources. That's why the Embassy Series is so valuable.
Ten years ago, vocalist Jerome Barry, a veteran of numerous diplomatic and cultural concerts, founded the Embassy Series to allow the public to experience international music and musicians at Washington's embassies. A simple premise, and it's been a roaring success. The 2004-05 series, which began earlier this month, hopscotches between 16 embassies and ambassadorial residences through June. Among the 32 events on the schedule are programs dedicated to Mozart, Chopin and Paganini; evenings of traditional Ukrainian and Cuban music; and an Icelandic concert and Christmas party. It's surprisingly affordable -- most tickets cost between $35 and $45, including an after-concert reception with free food and drinks catered by the embassy. (For the more intimate concerts, including those at the homes of the Norwegian and Portuguese ambassadors, prices are closer to $100.) This weekend, for example, the Embassy Series is putting on two concerts at the Cuban Interests Section (technically not an embassy), with pianist Thomas Turso. Turso is renowned for his interpretations of Ernesto Lecuona, a legendary Cuban pianist whose body of work encompasses classical waltzes and orchestral pieces as well as lively Afro-Cuban tunes. Afterward, there's a reception with Cuban food and drink -- yes, probably rum -- and a chance to meet the Cuban staff, ask them questions about their homeland and discuss "The Motorcycle Diaries," the new movie about Che Guevara.
Most Embassy Series events follow a pretty similar structure. Take the performance of the Shanghai Traditional Instrument Orchestra at the Chinese Embassy last week. Ambassador Yang Jiechi made a welcoming speech, talking about Sino-American relations. The 21/2-hour concert featured rousing, captivating Chinese melodies rarely performed in this country. After a final encore, the audience was ushered into a reception area with a huge dinner buffet that included dumplings, spicy beef and crispy vegetables. Bow-tied waiters poured soda, Scotch, and Chinese beer and wine. Musicians and diplomats mingled with guests. The crowd favored a business-casual look, but there was nothing stuffy about the evening.
Barry declared the concert "wonderful" but was just as pleased with all the patrons who were talking to their Chinese hosts, examining the embassy's decorative screens and antique sculptures, and participating in a low-level cultural exchange. "It's about as close as you can get," he said, marveling over the colorful lanterns with dangling red silk tassels. "It's not quite China, but you saved yourself a long trip."
An acclaimed baritone who attended a conservatory in Rome and worked as a writer for the Israeli National Opera, Barry has performed in more than a dozen countries, at the Kennedy Center and at Carnegie Hall. He holds a master's degree in languages and literature, speaks 12 languages and has sung in a total of 27. It's a resume that suits his mission: getting Washington's diplomatic community to engage local music lovers.
Barry traveled all over the world before moving to Washington in 1974 and found the city to be a natural fit. "I'm a linguist. I've always identified with the international community," the Boston native says. "I started to get friendly with many diplomats and sang at many embassies and organized programs." In 1981, Barry helped found the Washington Music Ensemble, a group that performed modern works at embassies and cultural institutes. For a concert at, say, the Swedish Embassy, the program would be based on composers from Sweden.
In 1994, Barry struck out on his own, creating the Embassy Series to work with diplomatic missions. The theme, he says, is to showcase the music of a particular country or outstanding musicians from that country. While a Mozart festival at the Embassy of Austria is a no-brainer, Barry's special programs often pique an embassy's interest. A concert at the Embassy of Poland included a tribute to Ignace Jan Paderewski, who served as Poland's prime minister after World War I. A devotee of Chopin, he was also a popular composer who had his work "Manru" performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1902. "What was special was he played on that piano, he was at that embassy," Barry says. "He's a national hero [in Poland]." An evening at the Lithuanian Embassy included a tribute to the songs of the Vilna Ghetto; Vilna was known as the "Jerusalem of Lithuania" before its population was liquidated by the Nazis in World War II.
"Sometimes people come to some of our concerts and they expect it to be totally classical and very cerebral," Barry says, pointing to the Viennese and Hungarian operettas on the current schedule. "But I think the Embassy Series should not be just about classical music. It should be about embassies and the culture of their countries. That's why we have things like the concert at the Cuban Interests Section. Cuban music is just fun to listen to. We also have music from Iceland. . . . I try to do a good mix -- keep it at as high a level as possible, but yet accessible to all sorts of people."
The artists and programs are selected by Barry and the diplomatic missions, and include musicians he's heard, award-winning ensembles he's heard of, or names proposed by the embassies themselves.
More and more embassies are getting in touch -- Barry says he has held concerts at 35 embassies and worked with 100 ambassadors -- and in the past four years, the number of concerts in the annual series has tripled.
Not every venue is a professional-quality concert hall, and seating arrangements can be a little tight. At the Chinese Embassy, for example, rows of chairs faced a low stage more suited for a news conference. When soloists performed, they were often on the floor in front of the stage, and it became difficult -- if not impossible -- for many in the audience to see them. Capacity and staging vary widely. The intimate concerts in ambassadors' homes hold about 80 or 90 people, while the Austrian Embassy's grand atrium holds 430. But, Barry jokes, the smaller concerts usually have better buffets, and there's more of a personal touch. "This is all about access," he says. At the Embassy Series, "you have access to music, access to diplomats. The people at the receptions are regular people, but you meet diplomats, see very beautiful places, like the Singapore Embassy. You can actually ask questions of an ambassador. There's networking going on."
More importantly, in a town where many folks wear their politics on their sleeve, the Embassy Series is distinctly nonpartisan. "I'm very proud to say that I go beyond politics," Barry says. "The concerts at the Cuban Interests Section are not politics, they're culture. We had two concerts there last year. We're not allowed to invite Cuban artists, which is very difficult. We have an American artist who's traveled there and is an expert on Cuban music.
"I don't agree with all the political systems in places where we have the Embassy Series, but it's culture. What I'm looking at is people-to-people. That's why I want to do more events at Muslim countries -- we did one with Tunisia last year. I think this helps us understand people's mindset, and we have to communicate."
Pianist Thomas Tirino performs Friday and Saturday at 8 at the Cuban Interests Section (2630 16th St. NW). Tickets are $45 and include a post-concert reception. The Zurich String Trio performs Thursday and Oct. 22 at 8 at the Embassy of Switzerland (2900 Cathedral Ave. NW). The program includes works by Bach-Mozart, Beethoven and von Dohnanyi. Tickets are $40, and seating is limited.
Tickets for Embassy Series concerts often sell out well in advance, and buying tickets at the door is extremely rare. Also, allow extra time to get through security. For tickets, a complete schedule and more information, visit www.embassyseries.com or call 202-625-2361.