Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Washington Social Diary

Portrait of Empress Dowager (courtesy of Freer and Sackler Galleries).
Now we don our "Empress" Apparel
by Stephanie Green

Sometimes the problem with having a party in an art museum to celebrate an exhibition is that the guests spend more time admiring each other and what "so and so" is wearing than the artwork.

Such was the case Saturday night at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, but the organizers of the event had this coming as they provided a plethora of enchanting distractions.

To wit: The clever invitation asked guests to come dressed to "empress" in honor of the Sackler's impressive collection "China's Empress Dowager Family Matters: Portraits from the Qing Court." And they did. I spotted my fair share of mandarin collar silk dresses with geisha girl accessories, such a refreshing departure from the usual sorority girl getups one surveys in the crowd at the "young professionals event," which is how the party was billed.
Cocktails at Sackler's "Dress to Empress" event.
The evening fell under the auspices of the Sackler's Silk Road Society, the gallery's organization for fans of Asian art and culture between the ages of 21 and 40. It was heartening to see so many young people turn out as the Sackler, celebrating 25 years in 2012 as the Smithsonian's eminent museum of Asian art, is often eclipsed by the more glamorous National Gallery of Art and Phillips Collection, particularly with tourists and young art lovers.

Guests trickled in about 8, and headed to the underground gallery where Asian cuisine (the spring rolls were my favorite) and multiple mini-bars beckoned their sampling. I had a chance to peruse the gallery to check out the ancient artifacts from oceans away. Isn't this the reason we're all here? I counted a handful of guests in the gallery with me. You could hear a pin drop in there. Everybody else was queuing up in the bar line or taking "prom style" pictures with their friends. It was the perfect, young mood, festive and fun, without a face over fifty in sight, except for the security staff who politely kept out the food, drink, and flash photography from the exhibition rooms.
Brian Tsai, Brenda Tsai, and Hutomo Wicaksono.
Kate Michael and Michael Woestehoff.
In keeping with their "dress to empress" theme, the Sackler hosted a late night fashion show featuring the modern and austere designs of Yeohlee Teng, a Malaysian born designer whose work is on permanent display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As for those other "enchanting distractions, how about some live- paper cutting, passed desserts, DJ Nitekrawler, and a Chinese costume photo studio to complete your evening?

How did a party manage to upstage an empress? Spotted in the crowd: Host committee members Aba Kwawu, Lindsey Drath, Diana Minshall, Kate Michael, Karin Tanabe, the Sackler's Carly Pippin, and public relations man Michael Woestehoff.
The Sackler hosted a late night fashion show featuring the designs of Yeohlee Teng.
Every December I look forward to crossing the Potomac to Old Town to attend the annual Taste of Scotland reception for the Campagna Center, Alexandria's most prominent community organization for children and families.

Although I commend the work of the Campagna Center and always enjoy seeing my Old Town friends, I have to admit that I go to their Taste of Scotland fundraiser just because of the venue, perhaps one of my favorite buildings in greater Washington, a monument that unfortunately has not, until recent years with the publication of Dan Brown's book The Lost Symbol, received the attention it deserves.

The George Washington Masonic National Memorial, was constructed in 1932, and stands over 300 feet high. Every year I pat myself on the back for not smoking and staying in good enough shape to climb the multiple levels of stairs leading up to the front door of this mammoth structure, which is allegedly fashioned after the Lighthouse of Alexandria in Egypt.
Bronze of George Washington looms over guests at Taste of Scotland photo courtesy of Campagna Center
As its name suggests, the building is in honor of our country's most famous freemason, George Washington, and my fascination with the site is indeed very personal. My grandfather, nearly 87, has been a dedicated 32nd degree freemason for over 50 years, but regrettably has never had a chance to see the memorial, a very dear, and almost sacred place in American freemasonry.

When I attended the reception on Friday night, and gazed up at the gargantuan bronze statue of Washington, and examined the impressive murals depicting freemasonry lore, I was reminded of how freemasonry has affected my grandfather's life and how he has been influenced through it to help so many people through the years, particularly seriously injured children.
Carolers lift the spirits.
The atmosphere coupled with the Campagna Center's group of angelic carolers always puts the holiday in perspective for me. The Taste of Scotland reception is a kick off of sorts to the Alexandria Christmas season and the opening event of the Campagna Center's Scottish Walk Parade, a tradition that celebrates the city's proud Scottish roots.

At the reception, I chatted with the Center's Lee Stenberg, and Laura Niswander, Alexandrian par excellence John Arundel and his wife, Christine, and the Scottish Government's Robin Naysmith. Now in its 21st season, the Opera Camerata of Washington, a group of dedicated but unconventional opera lovers, brings music's highest art form into the living rooms and salons of the nation's capital.
Masonic symbols and tributes to George Washington abound inside the historic halls
The key to Opera Camerata's success is brevity. Everything is done on a smaller scale. The opera is abbreviated. The number of singers and musicians is pared down, but the drama, no doubt, is amplified, and there is no shortage of talent. Seeing the passion and majesty of a Verdi work at the Kennedy Center is an experience, but being able to absorb it just a few feet from your seat is quite another.

I've been attending Camerata events over the past two years thanks to my acquaintance with the Camerata's president, Randall Roe, a businessman and tireless opera supporter, and his wife Nancy. Thanks to Randall's dogged charm offensive, he has convinced a number of ambassadors to host the Opera Camerata at their embassies and in their residences, which is no small feat. I've seen opera at the Italian Embassy, at the Romanian Ambassador's residence, and in a number of luxurious hotel ballrooms. If Randall wanted to have an opera performed on the top of the Washington monument, I'm sure he could make it happen. The Camerata invites their guests to a different location for every performance, has a cocktail hour with cheerful mingling and spirits, and then everyone retires to a cozy milieu to hear the opera of choice for the night.
Monaco's Ambassador Giles Noghes with wife Ellen at Opera Camerata.
Opera Camerata president Randall Roe with Belgian Ambassador Jan Matthysen and Agnes Aerts.
It's a winning formula. The change of scenery, if you will, and the shorter versions of the operas seem to appeal to a wide swath of Washingtonians from Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to Susan Eisenhower to Laurence Leamer. Their most recent performance of Johann Strauss II's Die Fledermaus was held this past Tuesday, November 29, at a private club in Dupont Circle.

The jovial operetta, known for its breezy, Straussian waltzes, was conducted by the Camerata's young and spirited maestro Stephen Czarkowski, one of the many rising stars the company promotes. Fresh from returning from the Thanksgiving holiday, guests were aglow in the festive spirit of the early Christmas season including Monaco's Ambassador Giles Noghes and his Michigan-bred wife, and Belgium Ambassador Jan Matthysen.
Photographs by Stephanie Green, Michael Woestehoff, The Freer/Sackler's Rob Harrell.