(Of course, if nothing but the real thing will do, read on to the end — our final stop offers a path forward — or backward, whichever way normal is.)
C&O Canal Towpath
The “Grand Old Ditch,” as I’m told it’s referred to by some (hi, I’m new here), runs some 184.5 miles from D.C. to Cumberland, Md., its path packed down by generations of mules slowly towing coal down the waterway. And while there are naturally majestic stretches I’ve yet to explore (like at Great Falls, where the Potomac grows mighty as it squeezes through Mather Gorge) and engineered features I’ve yet to see (like Paw Paw Tunnel), lately I’ve taken to taking walks that begin at the beginning in Georgetown.
Descend to its shaggy banks and follow the canal — bushy with cattails, busy with turtles and staked out here and there by unbothered herons — and you’ll find easy escape from Georgetown’s mobs of shoppers — as Stephen Hansen put it last year, it’s “neither a city park nor a playground; not a parcourse nor a gym.” And the shape of the place, set low between rising walls of brick and beneath a ladder of bridges, could, with the right light and a proper soundtrack, be mistaken for the sanctuary of a chapel or a concert hall.
I went with Schubert’s Fantasia in F Minor, composed in 1828 — the last year of the composer’s life, and the year construction on the C&O commenced. This four-handed masterpiece for a piano duo shimmers on the surface while its depths stall and surge — a fitting match for the shifting temperament of the piece, including the little trills that dart like dragonflies into the largo. canaltrust.org.
Walking the trails of this woodland respite, which wraps around the grounds of the Washington International School between Woodley Park and Cleveland Park, you could find yourself, as I did, perfectly content with the music of the place itself. The breeze through the drifts of daffodils, the ceaseless chorus of birdsong from the tree canopy (this place is wren central), or the quite literal streaming audio of the Macomb Stream (on the north side) and the Klingle Stream (to the south), which trickle and trace some of the park’s most pleasant paths through the forest.
Or you may be taken by those trusty baritones of the Lily Pond, the bullfrogs. It’s extremely tempting here to finally have occasion to recommend one of Johann Georg Albrechtsberger’s several concertos for mouth harp (spoiler: boing! boing! boing!) for your pondside reverie, but the sheer, austere beauty of Tregaron demands better. Try Telemann’s Violin Concerto in A (“The Frogs,” TWV 51:A4) or Haydn’s Quartet No. 41 in D (“The Frog,” Op. 50, No. 6, Hob. III/49), both of which conjure our croaking companions through whimsical intrusions of bariolage — a rapid repetition of the same note on alternating strings. tregaron.org.
Most afternoons, the Wharf is a din of construction, air traffic, and overlapping muzaks from its steadily reopening bistros and cafes. But if you can get there nice and early, before most of the District opens its eyes, its modest stretch of walkable waterfront can provide a starkly beautiful setting for a morning stroll. But don’t mistake any old aubade for all-purpose morning music. (Poulenc’s caffeinated classic dawns with all the delicacy of an alarm clock.)
I recommend something that opens the day by gradually parting the curtains of your dreams — like Toru Takemitsu’s 1991 piece for two pianos and orchestra, “Quotation of Dream — Say Sea, Take Me,” which lifts its subtitle from Emily Dickinson (“My river runs to thee”), and certain motifs from Debussy’s La Mer. It feels like music awakening, stretching, moving between one consciousness and another. (And it’s gentle enough that you can wrap things up with the fishmonger without having to pop out your ear buds.) wharfdc.com.
'Sounds of Hope & Harmony'
If you happen to be biking the Mt. Vernon Trail on July 25, consider locking up in Old Town Alexandria that evening as orchestral touring company Classical Movements launches “Sounds of Hope & Harmony,” a new series of 16 concerts in its socially distanced “secret garden.” I covered the company’s first go at a pandemic-defying outdoor concert (spoiler: it was great!), and its forthcoming programs (Aug. 1, 8, 15; Sept. 12, 19, 26; and Oct. 3) will reach beyond chamber music to include opera, jazz and even choral works.
This first date will bring together players from the National Symphony Orchestra to celebrate “the four B’s” — Barrière, Bologne, Bartók and Beethoven. (And especially that last guy, whose big sesquicentennial has been all but ruined by the pandemic.) Oh, and the ride over is as good a time as any to brush up on your Joseph Boulogne — a.k.a. Chevalier de Saint-Georges — whose String Quartet No. 3 in G Minor is a particular treat on the program. classicalmovements.com.