Washington Life Magazine
Washington Life Magazine

Around Town
with Donna Shor

When the president of your country comes to Washington, and you are his ambassador to the United States, how do you celebrate?

Why, you give a dinner for 500 at the Willard Hotel, of course, and if you are the Ambassador of Tunisia Hatem Atalla and his wife Faika , you enhance it with a colorful parade of Tunisian fashions and a belly dancer. Since 1987, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has headed this western Mediterranean country founded by the Phoenicians twelve centuries before Christ.

At the dinner Faika said that every morsel of the food that was served had been flown in from her country, including orange juice, wines and even the lemons for the fish course.

The fashion show featured the styles of Fatma Ben Abdallah, who shows her creations worldwide and is the recipient of the coveted UNESCO Prize for Creativity. She also designs the fabrics—gleaming golden wraps and floating gossamer gowns—in materials so beautiful they are the stuff of which dreams are made. All this, and a belly dancer too.

The ambassadors of Malta, Spain, Portugal, Kuwait, Italy, France, Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania, Yemen, Congo, Egypt, Cape Verde, Quatar, Swaziland, the ambassador to the United Nations from the League of Arab States, Cameroon, the United Arab Emirates, and Senegal were among the thirty ambassadors present with their wives.

Seen in the happy crowd: former chiefs of protocol Lucky Roosevelt and Lloyd Hand , present chief of protocol Donald Ensenat and wife Taylor , Renée and Gen . Wallace Robinson , and Sheila and Kaivun Al-Saleh , (whose father was the late Shah of Iran's physician).

A few nights later, also in the Willard Hotel ballroom, many of the same people again appeared, invited by Ambassador and Mrs. Salem Al-Sabah to celebrate the forty-third anniversary of the national day of the State of Kuwait. Tables groaned under the weight of whole roast lambs, platters of hummus, couscous, stuffed grape leaves, elaborate pastries and other delicacies. One delighted guest who really enjoyed the food was Mayor Anthony Williams , with wife Diane , who said he is taking up the invitation “from the mayor of Paris for the mayor of Washington to visit him.” Diane is looking forward to it.

MUSIC-MAKERS: There were two exceptional musical events here recently. First, at the George Mason University Center for the Arts, the stirring performance of 50 singers and 52 musicians from the renowned Moscow State Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Pianist Navah Perlman opened the concert with the work that catapulted Rachmaninoff to fame, his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Opus 18. It concluded with Tchaikovsky's reverberating 1812 Overture, enriched by a choral arrangement of the original Russian songs from which it was derived.

Tchaikovsky once claimed he did not want to compose the work in the first place, since it was to be performed for the silver jubilee of Tsar Alexander II, “a high ranking person who has always been (antipathetic) to me.” The piece was also written to mark the opening of Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior, (a cathedral he did not like) and to glorify the 1812 event “which delights me not at all.” He called it “very loud and noisy” (to include a brass band, cannon shots and cathedral bells), “with no artistic merit…written without warmth or love.”

Though a notable composer, he proved an inferior oracle: the overture has become one of his best-known and most performed works, agreed Irina Popova , cultural attaché of the Embassy of the Russian Federation, who attended with her son, Vlad .

At the Friends of the Center For the Arts dinner preceding the program, George Mason University president Alan G. Merten and FCFA president Tom Ezell greeted guests, including author Virginia Schmidt , who has recently published a book about the legendary woman who challenged Napoleon. It took her 20 years to research and write “Triumph In Exile”, a fast-paced novel based on the life of Madame de Staël, (who herself was fast-paced, even racy.)

Famed in the political and social mix of Napoleonic Paris for her brilliant salons, Mme. de Staël was sent into exile by Napoleon. He disliked her intensely for many reasons, considering her advocacy of personal freedom and her influence to be a threat to him. He was right, as events subsequently revealed. The gala dinner chairman was Maria Nedelkovich , who her intimates know as “Mickey,” but who also has a longer sobriquet unknown even to her close friends of years; she'll never mention it.

Through her old Portugese lineage the title that has come down to her is Countess Barreiro de Bragança Arce de Aragon . Questioned, Mickey laughs, “Well, my rank is several degrees distant in the line of succession to the throne of Portugal—which no longer exists—so it isn't anything I think about much these days.” But her unused pedigree does have a nice ring to it.

The second musical event, at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theatre, was also unusual. Winning an important European music competition at age thirteen is a thrill; but when you reach nineteen, with a string of awards trailing your name like the tail of a kite, and you triumph in one of the world's most prestigious competitions (which no one in your category has won for forty years), the music world really snaps to attention. That's the case with David Guerrier , a youth from the village of Pierrelatte, near Marseilles, who last fall took first in the Munich International Music Competition, a grueling test with four elimination rounds, against the top 1% of world-renowned soloists.

And surprise! He won playing the trumpet, one of the least likely to succeed of all the instruments in this contest. Forty years earlier, trumpeter Maurice André won in what was previously the realm only of violinists, pianists and singers; but it hasn't happened since, until David Guerrier. Earlier he had already been named 2003 Young Concert Artists First Prize winner, and he appeared here under the Upcoming Concert Artist auspices, with prize-winning pianist Steven Beck, who is already world-renowned at age 26.

Ranging from Hindemith through to Bernstein (with a tour de force Escaich of technical difficulty) the performance brought the audience to their feet with two encores. (“I've never thought I would spend an afternoon at a trumpet concert” was the comment heard on all sides.)

The Young Concert Artists, a non-profit group founded forty-one years ago in New York by Susan Wadsworth to discover exceptional young musicians, book their appearances and provide career guidance. The organization has launched the careers of such names as Murray Perahia, Pinchas Zukerman and Emanuel Ax. It is spearheaded here in Washington by Gilan Tocco Corn , herself a well-known concert pianist.

Later, at a reception honoring countryman Guerrier at the French Embassy, Ambassador Jean-David Levitte led an impromptu tour through the first floor, describing the furnishings. Emphasizing the historically close relationship of France and the United States, he showcased a portrait of George Washington as well as one of General Lafayette, who came with his troops to our aid in the war of independence from Britain.

At the map delineating the area of the 1803 U.S. Louisiana Purchase from France, he pointed out with a twinkle that “for only $15 million, the United States doubled its territory overnight, from the Mississippi to the Rockies, and from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes.” Incidentally, a handsome book that highlights this embassy's furnishings as well of those of forty others is now being seen on Washington coffee tables.

“Embassy Residences in Washington” by Columbian publishing house Villegas Editores, was coordinated by the Ambassador of Columbia , Luis Moreno and his wife Gabriela . The preface is by Walter Cutler , former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and president of the International Center at Meridian House, and his talented wife Didi has supplied several of the stunning interior photos.

It is an embassy tour between covers.

COCKTAIL TIME: Anna Maria and Giorgio Via hosted a party at their McLean home that saw a host of attendees including Icelandic Ambassador Helgi Agustsson and his wife Heba ; Brenda and Jacques de Suze , (she is president of the women's committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts); professor Eva Nowotny , who is the new ambassador from Austria; Moroccan Ambassador Aziz Mekour and his wife, Maria Felice ; minister of the Turkish Embassy Naci Saribas and his wife Gülden ; Portuguese Ambassador Pedro Catarino and his wife Cheryl; Idriss Al-Senoussi and his wife Ana Maria ; Pakistani Ambassador Ashraf Jehangir Qazi and his wife Abidah; Alessandra and Michael Daigneault (she is the Via's daughter); Italian Embassy Counselor Sergio Amati and his wife, Laura; Hussein Hassouna, the Ambassador to the United Nations of the Arab League and his wife Nevine, Clayton and Susie Eisinger ( she along with Anna Maria is one of the co-chairs of the Arts for the Aging benefit, to be hosted this year by the Japanese Ambassador who has allowed AFTA to invite 500!) and Lolo Sarnoff, who is AFTA's founder.

HAIL AND FAREWELL: Lots of comings and goings on Embassy Row. Juan Jose Bremer , the ambassador of Mexico, has left to take up the same post in London, and the new ambassador is Carlos de Icaza , accompanied by his wife Luisa .

Popular Kerstin Eliasson , the wife of the Swedish ambassador, has been in Stockholm since December, appointed Deputy Minister of Higher Education and Research. Meanwhile the ambassador is holding down the fort here, where he acquitted himself nobly in her absence by providing a St. Lucia party with all the trimmings. Paraguay has a new envoy, James Spalding , here with his wife Cecilia , Austria's new ambassador Eva Nowotny is mentioned above, and it seems there will also be a switch at the Embassy of India.

Probably the most partied-out pair in town are the Ambassador of Brazil and Maria-Ignes . Farewell parties for them began in January, and continued nonstop. They themselves hosted a wall-to-wall-people reception to say goodbye which was heavy with official Washington, the diplomatic corps and “Green Book” listees. Present were most of the group hosting a birthday party/farewell for Maria Ignez on the eve of her departure: Isabel Ernst , Hilda Brillembourg, Corinne Bensahel , Aniko Gaal Schott, Sedi Flügelman, Mirella Levinas , Ruthie Leffall and Ann Nitze .


Do you have an item “Around Town” should know about? Send it to me at donnashor@aol.com.


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