Richmond

Goodbye New York

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I’m rusty at the blogging thing. My two most recent posts were 10 months apart and this one clocks in at nearly 9 months after those (see a pattern emerging?).

That might explain why my first attempt at writing this one left me uninspired and had Lois groaning. To describe it as dry and lifeless would be an understatement.

Undaunted, I’m back with another take. Rather than blog, I decided to simply include the full text of an email I sent to a friend describing what we’re doing. I only changed a single word (removing the name of another friend).

In that regard, I’m communicating with the rest of the world in exactly the same manner I communicated with a very good friend (exactly as my blogs used to and should be).

First, a classic tl;dr (Too Long Didn’t Read) summary.

TL;DR

We’re officially Virginians/Southerners now. We’ll come to NYC often, so if you’re one of our Northern friends, you will likely see us as often as you always have. But, we won’t be calling New York home any longer.

The Infamous Email

Things are great. I’ve been meaning to write to you for weeks (literally), so having you jog me out of my routine to finally do it is great.

First, we were toying with doing a real cross-country car trip this September. I was actually actively planning it, Lois was more toying with the possibility of allowing me to plan it.

While we were going to stop in a bunch of places to visit friends, the two highlights for both of us were going to be Austin and SF.

So, why didn’t we do it?

Our bigger news caused that.

Last summer, one of our friends in Richmond made a strong case for us to move down there. In a nutshell, he said that as we age, we’re going to need to rely more on a “community” of people, and we already have that built in Richmond (over a 33 year period). He said if we wait too long, we’ll likely never make the move.

At the same time, the house between them and our closest friends was up for sale. He suggested that we look at it, since if the three of us lived side-by-side, it would be a blast in any event.

So, last August (2013) we looked at the house, and everyone hated it, so that was that. A few weeks later, the real estate agent told us that another house was about to come on the market a few doors down the other way and we looked at that.

Everyone thought that was a perfect house for us to buy. Unfortunately, it would have required a 100% gut job. It was priced to do that (so it wasn’t a financial reason to pass), but Lois couldn’t get comfortable with ripping a house to the studs and building it back up, over a period of 6+ months, etc.

So, we passed.

But, we kept talking about the concept, and it made sense on a lot of levels. So, every time we visited Richmond in the past year (lots of times), I would look online for houses on the market. While there were a number that I likely would have been very happy with, I knew Lois would reject every one, so we didn’t look at a single house after those original two.

Then this last trip, right before Labor Day, I found a house that looked perfect on paper. We made an appointment to see it on Labor Day, and every person that walked through the house with us (11 people) loved it.

A few days later, while we were in Birmingham, we decided to make an offer. Everything from making the offer, to negotiating, to signing the contract, to signing amendments, was all done online. What a brave new world.

We just closed on the house last week. We have some light renovation to do over the next few months (no construction, no walls coming down). In the meantime, we need to get our house ready for sale (given the clutter, neither of us is looking forward to that task!).

For the foreseeable future, we’ll hang on to the apartment in NYC. We’ll do the reverse of what we’ve been doing with Richmond for the past 33 years. We’ll come often to NYC to visit our friends here, but our base will now be down there.

We’re both quite excited about the prospective change. Here’s hoping reality exceeds (not only lives up to) that expectation!

The Nutcracker at Richmond CenterStage

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I was supposed to be at work all day yesterday. If you promise not to tell anyone that could get me in trouble, I’ll tell you what I did after leaving the office at 10:15am (I was in at 7am, so I got some things done). Winking smile

Our friends in Richmond bought six tickets for the matinee of The Nutcracker at Richmond CenterStage. We went with our godchildren and their significant others. This is our third time at CenterStage (actually Lois’ fourth time) and we have enjoyed each performance immensely.

I may be one of the few adults in America that never saw The Nutcracker growing up. For whatever reason, I never sought out ballet or opera, even though I grew up loving classical music. That said, I didn’t squirm at the thought of seeing it this time, given how much I enjoyed the ballet portion of the Richmond CenterStage opening (covered in this post).

TheNutcracker

Even though I hadn’t seen The Nutcracker before, I knew the music very well. I am a major fan of The Richmond Symphony and they performed Tchaikovsky’s work beautifully. Everyone in the orchestra contributed, so I feel badly calling out two instruments. The flutists were incredible. There were a number of harp solos that were delivered flawlessly.

The ballet was much more ornate than I imagined it would be. The costumes and sets in the first half were gorgeous. There were nearly two dozen kids as well (always good for heart-warming chuckles, I’ll give a specific example later). Not to ruin it for the other person in America who hasn’t seen it, but there isn’t much ballet in the first half. There’s some dancing and graceful moving around, but the real ballet mostly takes place after intermission.

The most impressive scene in the first Act is the magical coming to life of the dolls. Awesome in every respect.

Act I ends with the dream sequences beginning, first up The Enchanted Snow Forest.

There are a number of different fantasy scenes (dreams) in the second half, all set to traditional ballet. All of the choreography is top notch and the costumes are stunning. That said, the various scenes are not equal. Some are adorable (non-stop chuckling in the audience), specifically, the Russian Dance, which includes a bear doing ballet. On the other end of the spectrum is Waltz of Flowers, which is visually interesting, but way too repetitive.

The men seemed to all perk up during the Arabian Dance. The ballerina was stunning, her outfit inventive (and suggestive) and her movements (dancing) were mesmerizing.

The two most impressive ballerinas (to my taste) were the Sugar Plum Fairy (the program lists a number of possible dancers, so I can’t be sure which one I saw yesterday) and the Snow Queen who ended Act I (that role also lists multiple possible dancers).

Coming back to the child-induced chuckling. There is a scene with Little Bo Peep and her sheep. The sheep are all little girls. All but one sheep is dressed in white. The smallest girl/sheep is dressed in black. She was beyond adorable and every time she wiggled, we all giggled. Smile

I really enjoyed the ballet but I admit to occasionally feeling that the visual distraction was keeping me from fully immersing in the music, which is still my first love. I’ll need to get back to Richmond to see a performance of the symphony, with nothing else going on (no Cirque, no Ballet, no Opera, etc.). I look forward to that!

Kudos to all involved in this excellent production. Unfortunately, yesterday was the last day of a two-week run, so you won’t get to see the same show I saw, at least not this year.

WellDeservedCurtainCall

While the ballet was a highlight of the day, it was by no means the only one. Before the show, the six of us, plus our benefactors (our godchildren’s parents), had a wonderful meal at Chez Foushee. Here’s a shot of us, thanks to the waiter:

ChezFoushee

Lois forced us to split four desserts. Here are two of them, just make you a bit jealous:

ChezFousheeDessert

After a little R&R following the show, our benefactors were back in action preparing a home-made feast to top off the night. Here’s the home-made pasta drying:

HomemadePastaOnDryingRack

Thanks to everyone for making yesterday a memorable and special day! I leave you with a shot of our wonderful godchildren:

TheGodchildren

Cirque De La Symphonie at Richmond CenterStage

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I grew up on classical music. My dad had thousands of full reel-to-reel tapes that he played non-stop from tape #1 through the last. When I need to be rejuvenated, I still turn to classical music, though I listen to other stuff way more often.

Last night our friends invited us to a very special performance of Cirque De La Symphonie at Richmond CenterStage. It was a one-night performance (with the Richmond Symphony Orchestra), but you can catch them with other orchestras and I highly recommend that you do!

This was our second time seeing the Richmond Symphony perform. I covered the previous one in this post. I am sure it won’t be our last, they are wonderful! They are led by Steven Smith, Musical Director and Conductor. Last night his role was expanded, as he also interacted with the Cirque performers, including one fantastic illusion.

Illusion

The symphony performed four or five pieces without the Cirque performers on stage. During those pieces, the symphony was well lit and it was as visually interesting as it was aurally. My particular vantage point allowed me to focus on the cello players. Their fingers were flying up and down the frets, mesmerizing. The violin section was all bows to me, moving in unison at lightning speed.

StevenSmithRichmondSymphonyOrchestra

I love most instruments, but I always surprise myself when one is highlighted and I catch myself thinking “That’s really one of my favorites!”. Last night was the flute. Many of the pieces were flute heavy (or should I say flute heaven?). Smile

The last row was the horns. I love brass (see, I told you, I really love them all!). Our godson’s fiancée plays the French Horn, so  I couldn’t help but try to pick out every note from the four French Horn players. I wasn’t so successful at that.

One last shout out to the viola section, they were superb.

When the Cirque players were on stage, the orchestra was beautifully but dimly lit. That made it easy to spend 100% of the time being awed by every single performer (six in all, with a few of them performing multiple routines). I have never seen a Cirque performance live. It won’t be my last.

If you know what Cirque is you don’t need my description. If you don’t know, my description wouldn’t do it justice, so I’ll just leave you with a few of Lois’ photos of the performance.

Ribbons1JugglerRope

RingRibbons2

StrongMen1StrongMen2StrongMen3

Thank you to our friends for inviting us last night and to the Richmond Symphony and Cirque De La Symphonie for a truly magical evening!

CurtainCall1CurtainCall2CurtainCall3

We spent a couple of hours in the afternoon wandering around the annual Richmond Folk Festival. A perfect day of weather and music. We didn’t stay at any one stage long enough for me to write a blog about it. If you get a chance to attend one in the future (or later today?), run, don’t walk!

RichmondFolkFestivalCenterStageBonsoirCatinRichmondFolkFestivalAudienceAltriaStage

Richmond CenterStage

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The inaugural meeting of the CenterStage Foundation (organized to raise money for this amazing project) was held on September 11th, 2001. In an unplanned tribute to that meeting, a black-tie affair unofficially opening the Carpenter Theater to donors and dignitaries, was held on September 11, 2009.

The official grand opening of Richmond CenterStage was yesterday, September 12th, 2009, and what an opening it was! There was a ribbon-cutting ceremony in the afternoon, followed by a spectacular performance at night, including all nine resident performing groups.

For an excellent article covering the opening, including a video of a few of the highlights of the ribbon-cutting ceremony, read the coverage in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

So, how did two life-long New Yorkers end up at both the ribbon-cutting ceremony and the grand opening performance? Simple, our closest friends are life-long Richmonders. Bob Mooney is the Vice Chairman of the CenterStage Foundation. He was instrumental, along with hundreds of other civic and artistic minded Richmonders, in working tirelessly, for eight years, to see this project to fruition.

There were five speakers at the podium before the actual ribbon cutting. Jim Ukrop (Chairman of the CenterStage Foundation), Dwight Jones (Mayor of Richmond), Tim Kaine (Governor of Virginia), Kathy Graziano (City Council Representative in Richmond) and Grant Mudge (Artistic Director for Richmond Shakespeare). All were rightfully bursting with pride over the birth of this wonderful Performing Arts center.

This was our first glimpse of the Mayor. Lois and I left extremely impressed with his presence and message. CenterStage is playing a small but important role in a sweeping revitalization of downtown Richmond, and we have faith that Mayor Jones is an excellent person to lead that transformation.

Note: All photos in this post can be clicked on to see larger versions.

Before and after pictures of the ribbon cutting ceremony:

Before Ribbon Cutting

Before Ribbon Cutting

After Ribbon Cutting

After Ribbon Cutting

As the ribbon was cut, dozens (perhaps as many as 200?) of the performers from the various resident companies burst through the doors, in what could only be described as a Mardi Gras style procession. The Jazz Band was incredible (leading the way), and all of the performers, in full regalia, mesmerized the crowd with their grace and infectuous smiles.

Processional

Processional

Confetti then showered down on the crowd:

Confetti

Confetti

After the ceremony, everyone was invited to explore the entire CenterStage complex, including the Carpenter Theater, Rhythm Hall and the Libby Gottwald Community Playhouse. We were blown away by everything we saw. What was more amazing than our own reactions were the spontaneous gasps, oohs and ahs that were involuntarily uttered by practically everyone that walked into any of the spaces (most notably the Carpenter Theater and the Donors Lounge).

Carpenter Theater

Carpenter Theater

To top that off, there was such an incredible spirit of belonging (being a part of this magical place), that after finishing the gasps, strangers started talking to each other and gushing about the place. It was extraordinary!

After grabbing a quick dinner at home, we returned to the Carpenter Theater for the grand opening show. We arrived shortly after 7pm for an 8pm curtain. The place was buzzing with a ton of people there already. The Carpenter Theater seats 1,736 people, and it was sold out last night! That would be impressive any night, but was even more impressive considering that NASCAR was in Richmond on Saturday! A local hero won that race, so it was a big weekend all around for Richmond!

While the show was spectacular in general, what made it magical (a word heard very often on both Friday and Saturday nights at the Carpenter) was the eclectic mix of genres performed, and the ability to sample a smorgasbord of art forms in one sitting. Sheer genius. Kudos to the people who envisioned it and executed their vision to perfection.

Here’s a concrete example from me personally (I’m sure there were hundreds of analogous experiences, but perhaps with a different collection of likes and misconceptions). Prior to last night, it would have been difficult for someone to get me to attend the Ballet or the Opera. I had strong conceptions of what an evening at either would entail.

While the selection from La Boheme for the Opera piece didn’t change my mind on that, I was shocked at how much I was immersed in the Richmond Ballet performance (which was the finale of the evening). They performed Windows (Final Section), a ballet choreographed by the founding Artistic Director of the Richmond Ballet, Stoner Winslett (now in her 30th year in that position!).

Windows Richmond Ballet

Windows Richmond Ballet

The Richmond Symphony (who were incredible all night long) accompanied the Ballet playing an original work commissioned for this piece. The music was exceptional, and it restored my faith that brilliant classical pieces continue to be created now, even though they are creatively different than the masters of a few centuries ago.

I could fill a few more pages covering each of the performances in detail, but instead, I’ll conclude this portion by calling out one additional extraordinary musician, who also mesmerized me with his play.

Amadou Kouyate played the 21-string Kora. He performed with the Elegba Folklore Society who presented an excerpt from Marketplace Suite. All of the dancers and percussionists in the Elegba performance were excellent. Still, I can’t help but highlight Amadou directly. His fingers seemed to be barely moving, yet the richness of sound that came out of the Kora was beautiful and mind-boggling. It was a long piece, and he kept up his level of play throughout. Amazing!

Here’s a YouTube video of him singing (he did not sing last night). Aside from the fact that I like the song, it shows a number of people playing a Kora. In the video, most are sitting down. You also see someone playing the Kora while standing up, which is how Amadou played it last night.

After the show was over, all of the performers, the three people who conducted the Symphony throughout the evening, and the hosts, Tim Reid and Daphne Maxwell Reid all came out on stage for a group bow:

Performers at Richmond CenterStage Opening

Performers at Richmond CenterStage Opening

As we were walking up the aisle, we bumped into a good friend of ours that we hadn’t seen in a while. We chatted briefly, and as we were parting company, I heard our names called out from roughly 20 rows away. It was another couple whom we haven’t seen in a while. Here’s a shot of me with them standing in front of the amazing Donors Wall at CenterStage:

Friends at the CenterStage Donors Wall

Friends at the CenterStage Donors Wall

We then walked over to the after party. It was a wonderful scene, with most of the performers milling about (no longer dressed in costume) and quite a number of the patrons as well. The food (and drink) were exceptional, and we got to chat with a few people.

For me, the highlight was speaking to Stoner Winslett about the ballet piece. Lois got her to sign our program. Cool!

Hadar and Stoner Winslett

Hadar and Stoner Winslett

Stoner told me that the Richmond Ballet is coming to the Joyce Theater in NYC this spring (April  6th to the 11th, 2010). We are going to do our best to see that show. See, it is possible to open a mind, even mine! 😉

Then Lois chatted with the incredible hosts of the entire evening, Tim Reid and Daphne Maxwell Reid. While both had well-known TV careers, they have continued their artistic careers, and have supported new ones, through their VA-based production company.

Bob and Tim Reid

Bob and Tim Reid

Both of them were charming and gracious and also both signed our program! Score!

Earlier in the day, Lois pulled off another little coup, and got all of the major players in the ribbon-cutting ceremony to sign the afternoon’s program. Way to go Lois! 🙂

Ribbon Cutting Program

Ribbon Cutting Program

City Slickers Bluegrass Festival

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This past Saturday, May 9th, 2009, seven of us attended the City Slickers Bluegrass Festival in Richmond, VA. How and why we came to attend will be the subject of my next post, this one will just cover the event itself.

There were three headliners and one opening act. The opening act, Page Wilson with Reckless Abandon came on at 3pm. We weren’t able to get there until 3:30pm, so we caught the last 30 minutes of their set. Nothing worth mentioning (sorry), so I won’t waste space on them.

At 4:25pm, the first of the three headliners (and the one I was most curious to see live) came on, Sierra Hull. I was familiar with Sierra Hull because a very good friend of mine (an American who lives in the UK) bought me her CD (download on iTunes) a while ago. I loved it from the first listen (thanks again Chris!).

What I didn’t pay attention to until long after I loved the album was that Sierra was only 17-years-old (still is!) and that she plays the mandolin in addition to singing lead. I feel silly saying plays the mandolin, it sounds so mundane. I really love the mandolin, and I try to pay attention to the difference in style and abilities of the various top players.

Up until now, I would have rated my top three favorite mandolin players as follows:

  1. Chris Thile
  2. Adam Steffey
  3. Ricky Skaggs

Choosing between #2 and #3 above is a little arbitrary, they’re both so good. #1 however is a no-brainer for me. That’s still probably true, but I have to tell you, that after seeing Sierra Hull play for nearly 120 minutes (in two sets) on Saturday, I might slip her in between Chris and Adam. And, she’s only going to get better, I’m sure!

Lest you think I’m dissing Adam Steffey, here’s a quote on Sierra Hull’s site (front page) by Adam Steffey himself!

Sierra Hull is without doubt my favorite mandolin player!

See! 🙂 Sierra also played guitar (beautifully!) on roughly four numbers, but she was born to play the mandolin!

Backing up Sierra is a group called Highway 111.

Clay Hess plays the guitar and sings a ton with Sierra (lead and harmony). Clay is an awesome flatpicker, and he sings really well too.

Corey Walker played the banjo and sang as well. He’s really good. It was hysterical to hear Sierra (all of 17-years-old) saying “Can you believe how good Cory is, and he’s only 19?”. 🙂

Jacob Eller rounds out the band on the upright bass. Wonderful in every sense of the word.

The four of them blend beautifully together. Sierra is also as personable and commanding a stage presence as you could imagine, a seeming enigma for someone so young. The show would have been worth it just for Sierra’s two sets, but wait, there’s more! 🙂

Sierra Hull and Highway 111

Sierra Hull and Highway 111

Lois got her picture taken with Sierra right before Sierra’s second set. According to Lois, she’s as sweet and personable one-on-one as she is in front of the entire crowd!

Lois and Sierra Hull

Lois and Sierra Hull

At 5:45pm Seldom Scene came on the stage. As much as I love Bluegrass music (and trust me, I’m totally in love with the genre), I’m not a real aficionado of enough of the leaders in the category. I know a lot of groups which I love, but there are so many more that I’ve either never heard of, or have heard of but don’t really know their music.

Seldom Scene has been at the top of the Bluegrass world for over 30 years, but they fell into the category of heard of but not known by me. One of my friends (Richmond-based, but unfortunately out of town this past weekend) is a major fan, so I was really looking to finally getting to know them.

Wow! Even though these are no youngsters, they jam as well anyone blessed with youth. Their voices are amazing, individually and when singing harmony together. They are superb musicians, though none of them stood out to me like Sierra (folks, that’s not a complaint or a put-down of Seldom Scene band members). The songs were fantastic, and their 80 minute set was outstanding from the first note until the mandatory encore!

Seldom Scene

Seldom Scene

The second (literally) that the encore was over, the heavens opened up. They had predicted possible thunderstorms throughout the show, so it was nice that it held off until after 7pm, and waited until a natural intermission too. Severe lightning caused them to power down the sound board and stage. Better safe than sorry.

Sierra Hull was scheduled to come back on the stage at 7:30pm. Amazingly, shortly after that time, the rain stopped, and we were blessed with a cool evening. The show was only delayed 10 minutes, as Sierra was back on at 7:40! As I already noted above, she blew us all away again.

The final headliner to take the stage was The Grascals. Lois and I own three of their CDs, so we’re familiar with their music, and love it. I’m going to gush about them in a minute (including covering them individually), but take the time to read their bio to see how many awards they’ve won in their impressive but reasonably short career!

OK, you don’t win the International Bluegrass Music Association’s (IBMA) Entertainers of the Year award (in consecutive years no less!) without being something extremely special. They are indeed very special. This was our first time seeing them live, and I was really looking forward to it!

They are all superb musicians, but the focus is really on the fiddle, banjo and mandolin. The bassist is superb, but not really highlighted, and the two guitarists support the sounds wonderfully, but they are never highlighted (even less than the bass!).

Standing left-to-right on the stage:

Danny Roberts on the mandolin. He’s really good. Very fast, very clean, very interesting licks. Highlighted a lot in most of their numbers.

Jeremy Abshire on the fiddle. Holy Cow! This guy is amazing. If I had to make the call, I’d say that The Grascals highlight him slightly more than the rest, but who could blame them. He’s outstanding in every respect. Fast as greased lightning, but always interesting.

Jamie Johnson on vocals and guitar. (No particularly good link to him personally, sorry.) Jamie is the main MC (Master of Ceremonies) for the group. He also sings a slight majority of the leads. He’s very funny, has a good voice, and keeps the action rolling throughout the show.

Terry Smith on vocals and bass. (Also no good direct link.) Terry anchors the group nicely on the bass. On one number, he played slap-style, and was awesome. Terry sings on all of the songs, lead on a few. More on that in a minute.

Terry Eldredge on vocals and guitar. (Again, no good personal links. This isn’t as big as surprise to me, as I mentioned above that neither of the guitarists is a solo star in their own right.) Terry shares the MC duties (he’s quite funny), and sings lead just a tad less than Jamie, otherwise singing on every number.

Kristin Scott Benson on the banjo. Another Holy Cow! Kristin is the current IBMA Banjo Player of the Year! A month after winning that honor, she joined The Grascals. (They need to change the picture on their site to include her!) 😉 Folks, she’s amazing! I think they highlight Jeremy on the fiddle a drop more than they do her, but not by much. On a few numbers, she plays a mind-boggling riff, and Jeremy follows it on the fiddle in his own mind-boggling way, and then Kristin goes again, in a dueling fashion. Incredible!

OK, since I did my three favorite Mandolin players above, I’ll do my three favorite Banjo players here:

  1. Bela Fleck
  2. Ron Stewart
  3. Jim Mills

As with the mandolin, I’m being somewhat arbitrary in ranking #2 and #3 above, as I could listen to both for hours on end. Also like the mandolin, I think Bela is simply the best, no questions asked. Ron Stewart currently plays banjo with the Dan Tyminski Band, and Jim Mills plays with Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder.

Anyway, while I might not alter the above list (as I think I would for Sierra Hull), it would be a close enough call to consider Kristin for the #2 or #3 spot, and I’ll confidently declare her in my top four! 😉

Terry Smith is probably the strongest vocalist of the three as a soloist, but he rarely solos for them. The other two (Jamie and the other Terry) are both good individually, but really nothing special in my opinion. But, when the three of them sing together (which is on nearly every song), they produce magic. The three of them are so tight, and their voices blend beautifully.

The Grascals are fantastic, and I look forward to seeing them live again.

Sorry about the quality of this next photo. It was already dark, and the lighting wasn’t good enough for our compact camera:

The Grascals

The Grascals

This was our first festival, so we were nervous whether we’d be able to sit outdoors, on folding chairs, for seven hours. It was a piece of cake, with fabulous music, good food (BBQ) and a well-run show.

Here we are, enjoying ourselves completely!

Lois and Hadar

Lois and Hadar

Thank you Rotary Club of Richmond, VA for putting on a helluva show. We’re already planning on returning next year!

Here’s a shot from behind the stage, to give you a sense of the beautiful and relaxed atmosphere of this event:

Behind the Stage

Behind the Stage

P.S. If you’ve made it this far, Bravo! I know I rambled on about how awesome Sierra Hull is, and perhaps you don’t want to hear any more about her. But, if you have more patience, here is a long, but fantastic article profiling her five years ago, when she was all of 12-years-old! Read it all the way to the end, it’s priceless!