Sweet symphony
Looking down Fifth Avenue from midtown. 8:00 PM. Photo: JH.

Last night in the Ballroom of the St. Regis Roof the Russian National Orchestra held its 15th Anniversary Gala honoring the former Microsoft Chief Architect Charles Simonyi. Honorary Chairmen were Sophia Loren and Martha Stewart.

Now that was an interesting combination just to see. Why? Well, Martha is always interesting to see in public, even more interesting since her trials and tribulation because she remains steadfastly Martha, although I would say more at ease with herself. She looks very good and, I learned last night – although I’m probably one of the last to know – the honoree Mr. Simonyi is a “very close friend” of Martha, and has been for quite some time now.

Tatiana Goncharova, Mikhail Simonyan, and Edie Holbrook. Ms. Holbrook discovered the violinist when he was 13.

Then Sophia Loren is fascinating to see because she has such regal presence at all times. The mere sight of her evokes for me some of her great screen performances – such as “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” where, opposite Marcello Mastroianni she played three different types of woman (or maybe one type in three different socio-economic situations) so memorably I still have some of the scenes in my mind’s eye decades later. Her association with the RNO comes through her son Carlo Ponti Jr., who was made Associate Conductor of the RNO in 2000.

Last night Charles Simonyi was seated between Sophia Loren and Martha – a veritable triumvirate of powerful personalities and all quite different from each other. They looked very comfortable together if more than a bit distracted by others visiting them at the table as well as photographers (such as yours truly) seeking shots of them together and individually.

Mr. Simonyi, who is seven years younger than his friend Ms. Stewart, is one of Microsoft’s original programmers – going to work for Bill Gates when he was thirty-three. He is the chief architect and developer of Word and Excel applications.

Born and brought up in Communist Budapest, he came to this country when he was 18 to study at Berkeley, getting his PhD in computer science from Stanford. Once he was aware of it, Microsoft and Bill Gates was what and whom he wanted to work for. There were only 30 employees in the company at the time. The result is magnificently self-evident in terms of achievement for Mr. Simonyi, and also in terms of his personal fortune – last year he was named number 346 on the Forbes 400 Richest list, with a net worth in the neighborhood of $1 billion.

So Martha picked a combination of smart and rich. And a philanthropist. Since acquiring his great wealth, Mr. Simonyi has endowed two chairs – the Charles Simonyi Professorship for the Understanding of Science at Oxford University, which is held by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, and the Charles Simonyi Professorship in Theoretical Physics at the Institute for Advanced Study. He also created the Charles Simonyi Fund for the Arts and Sciences to support Seattle area arts, science and educational programs.

And at home, he has his own machine shop in the basement, complete with lathe and drill press. “In Hungary,” he told John Markoff of the New York Times in a 1990 interview, “they told us that the workers would never own the means of production.” So there. You can see that he and Martha have a lot in common.

But I digress, distracted by the enormous personalities occupying the center table of honor at the St. Regis Roof. Before and between courses, there were musical performances to accompany the honors: Pianist Yefim Bronfman played, as did violinist Mikhail Simonyan, cellist Nina Kotova and the RNO’s Four Strings Ensemble. The performances were brief but brilliant.

The dinner was Chilled smoked salmon and caviar, served with a Grove Street Winery 2003 Sonoma County Chardonnay; Borsch served with a Grove Street 2004 Napa Carneros Pinot Noir, Kotlety Pozharkie (which seemed a little like chicken Kiev to me), served with a Peter Paul Wines 2002 Napa Valley CabernetSauvignon. The wines were all donated by another RNO benefactor, Peter T. Paul, owner of the Grove Street Winery.

I sat next to Shelby White and Dame Jillian Sackler, and on the other side of me was Patricia Jurowsky, whose husband Vladimir Jurowski is at 34, the Conductor of the Russian National Orchestra.

This year the RNO made its debut residency at Lincoln Center followed by a World Tour that will span the globe. Last Sunday, at a 3 pm concert at Avery Fisher Hall, Yefim Bronfman performed as soloist performing the Tchaikovsy Piano Concerto No. 1 The Manfred Symphony. The Monday evening program included Tchaikovsky: Hamlet, incidental music, Romeo and Juliet, Fantasy Overture and Duet; The Tempest, Overture; with texts from Shakespeare’s plays, and tonight Wednesday, March 8, the concert program will include Stravinsky’s The Fairy’s Kiss, Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty, excerpts, and Suite No. 3 for orchestra.

Founded in 1990 as Russia’s first independent orchestra, the RNO has successfully pioneered a new model for the performing arts in Russia, shaping path-breaking artistic programs noted for innovation and excellence. It is the only Russian ensemble with a formal youth outreach program. Its for-charity CD of Peter and the Wolf and Wolf Tracks, conducted by Kent Nagamo and narrated by Sophia Loren, Mikhail Gorbachev and Bill Clinton won a Grammy in 2004 – first award ever to a US President or to a Russian Orchestra.

The spirit of innovation and freshness was palpable in the St. Regis Roof ballroom last night -- a very successful evening in many ways. In this world of constantly escalating turmoil and human hardship created by clashing and fatally nonsensical opinions of rightness, it’s no small beauty to see people supporting the making of beautiful music, a powerful juxtaposition to the itinerant and obfuscating madness that infiltrates our daily lives. It’s a measure of hope, albeit at times a small one.

Congratulations to all who helped bring it about including the Dinner Committee – Elizabeth Stribling (chairman), Jennifer C. Acker, Ellen Avellino, Charles Bausman, Elly Bruynes, April and Roddy Gow, Sahra Lese, Rita Z. Hehos, Christa Percopo and Deborah Royce. And of course our aforementioned esteemed ones: Loren, Stewart, Simonyi; Anniversary Council Susan Hutchinson, Gordon Getty, Peter T. Paul and many many others.

Nina Kotova
Mikhail Simonyan performs
Sophia Loren and Carlo Ponti Jr.
Pamela Fiori and Colt Givner
Alice Judelson
Susan Hutchinson
Richard Ziegelasch, Ella Krasner, and Christopher Mason
Kathy Sloane
Gerald Tsai and Sharon Bush
George Pleskach and Vladislav Lavrik
Dr. Bruce Horten and Dame Jillian Sackler
Jonathan and Somers Farkas
Elizabeth Stribling, Guy Robinson, Sheila Stephenson, and Cetie Ames
Susan Hutchinson and friend
Martha Stewart and Charles Simonyi
Audrey Gruss
Roddy and April Gow
Elaine Sargent
Tatiana Copeland
Never ending
Shelby White

March 8, 2006, Volume VI, Number 40
Photographs by DPC/NYSD.com


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