Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Borough of Brooklyn, Part I

While the impetus for my long weekend in New York City was the concert, I was also looking forward to spending time with extended family and doing some leisurely city exploring. While most tourists and visitors spend the vast majority of or all of their time in Manhattan, I knew Brooklyn would be my main stomping ground, as that is where my cousin lives and also because this was far from my first NYC visit. (In case you didn't know, NYC is made up of five boroughs: in addition to Brooklyn and Manhattan, the others are Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island.)

The last time I traveled to NYC, my adventures included walking across the Brooklyn Bridge (which has now become an incredibly popular tourist activity), experiencing the unique High Line Park, and seeing colorful bluebells, lilacs, rhododendrons, and tulips bloom in the lovely Brooklyn Botanic Garden, as well as visiting the impressive Brooklyn Museum, where I particularly enjoyed viewing Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party.
On this visit one afternoon was spent strolling through a corner of Prospect Park on our way to Green-Wood Cemetery, a sprawling graveyard with National Historic Landmark status, and which is the final resting place for a number of well-known individuals. It also boasts many impressive and interesting gravestones and great views, as well as an interesting history.
Can you spot the Statue of Liberty?
Green-wood was founded in 1838, and thus was one of the first rural cemeteries in this country. In just a couple of decades it had become well known for its beauty and as a prestigious location to be buried. The cemetery was so popular that it attracted a half-million visitors a year, and helped inspire creation of city parks such as New York's Central and Prospect Parks.
The entrance gate of the cemetery is stunning. Interestingly, a flock of parrots has lived its spires for many years. My camera could not do them justice, but for better photos of the bright green cuties, see this site.
The nests are easy to spot. Do you see two green parrots as well?
The cemetery's chapel is also beautiful, with many gorgeous stained glass windows. My cousin mentioned that he has even seen weddings take place there.
The land on which the cemetery is located played an important part in American history, as the Battle of Brooklyn was fought here. It was the first battle of the American Revolution after the Declaration of Independence, and also the largest battle in that war. Years later a wealthy businessman named Charles Higgins purchased lots on Battle Hill in Green-wood for his family tomb. He also had a plan for a monument to the Battle of Brooklyn, as he felt the battle was generally overlooked by historians. Thus, in front of his tomb stands the Altar of Liberty and a statue of Minerva, which salutes the Statue of Liberty. 
Minerva and the Altar of Liberty
The variety of tombs, monuments and gravestones in the cemetery was mind-boggling. From the simple to the over-the-top, it's all here.
Unremarkable marker for a remarkable man.
This one is a tad over-the-top by my definition.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

A Latvian Choir and Mikhail Baryshnikov

Latvia has many outstanding choirs, but one of the absolute best is the State Choir Latvija (aka The Latvian National Choir) with artistic director and conductor Maris Sirmais at its helm. When I heard they would be performing two concerts in New York City, I knew it was a great excuse to get back to that city. After consulting with extended family in NYC, I bought a ticket for the performance at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, and made travel plans.
On the evening of the performance my cousin, his wife, and I took the subway into Manhattan from their home in Brooklyn, then walked about a half-mile until the BAC, it being located a bit off the beaten path in the area known as Hell's Kitchen. Upon walking into the entrance of the center, much to my delight I immediately spotted my friend Līvija, who had traveled Philadelphia for the concert. We had not seen one another in quite a while, so it was an incredibly pleasant surprise to meet her.
As many people know, Baryshnikov was born in Riga. In his role of founder of the arts center that bears his name, he has been supportive of Latvian artists, thus was not surprising to see him and his wife in the audience of the relatively intimate theater where the concert took place.

The choir was comprised of slightly more than fifty singers, and filled the space with their incredible voices. The program contained mostly contemporary Baltic composers, and most were pieces I heard for the first time. Although the songs were all listed in the program with English titles, a number were sung in other languages, including Latvian, Estonian and Polish.
Photo credit: Kristine
This review does an excellent job describing the details! I agree that the less familiar composers definitely made an impression. Shall we just point out that Jēkabs Jančevskis was born in 1992, making him college-aged?

The piece that struck me the most was by Raimonds Tiguls, whose work I am somewhat familiar with, in particular the gorgeous Dod, Dievini!, which was sung at the Latvian Song Festival in 2013. Before the concert began I thought I noticed Tiguls sitting in the audience, and - indeed he was, as he participated in the performance of his piece by playing a unique instrument called the hang. Although this video features a different choir performing that piece, I urge you to watch (or at least listen to it), as you might also find it captivating.
Tiguls in white shirt on the right, Sirmais on the left in black shirt
After the end of the program and a standing ovation, the choir performed a rousing version of the folksong Rīga, Dimd!, then - after another insistent standing ovation - the evening was, like many Latvian events, closed with Pūt, Vejiņi!, a folksong that gained hymn-like status during Soviet Occupation. This video is of the performance of Pūt, Vejiņi! that evening - filmed with my not-so-new camera, thus I apologize for the less-than-stellar quality, but it is such a beautiful arrangement of the song, particularly the solo at the end.

My cousin, wife, and I had walked about two blocks back toward the subway stop before my realization that I had left my scarf in the theater. We returned, and I once again running into Līvija in the lobby, who told me that our friend Kristīne was also in attendance. While chatting with Līvija, I also met two other acquaintances, then went to find Kristīne, who was visiting NYC from Minnesota. It was so great to run into her, and as my cousin's wife had said while we were walking back to the center - I'd forgotten my scarf for a reason!
Overall, it was a magical evening, and I am grateful I could attend this performance. If you ever have the chance to see the Latvian National Choir perform, don't miss it!

A few weeks later exciting cultural news from Latvia: Baryshnikov is collaborating with Alvis Hermanis of the New Rīga Theater on a new play based on Nobel prize-winning poet Joseph Brodsky's poetry, with whom Baryshnikov was good friends. The play will run in Rīga in October, then tour the U.S. in 2016. Looks like I have at least one thing on my "to do" list for next year!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Easter Visitors

Although Christmas is our traditional family holiday, it is not uncommon for some of us to also gather at Easter. Now that my youngest nephew is in school, my sister and brother-in-law decided that a spring break (which in his school district coincides with Easter) trip was in order, and fortunately choose DC as their destination. We had a lot of fun together, and they were also able to visit and meet various friends, plus more family.

On the first evening, we all enjoyed a big pancake/bacon/fruit dinner (breakfast for dinner for the win!), and blowing bubbles/eating chocolate/drinking wine (to each their own!) on my balcony. The following  day they visited me at work, where the highlights of the outing were snacks eaten at one of our cafeterias, and finding Nemo in the large fish tank.

An afternoon was spent with other family members, and included visiting a horse - which meant grooming him, feeding him carrots (everyone's favorite part!), and for one lucky person - even doing some horseback riding. Family visits often also entail doing things outside the norm - such as eating ice cream shortly before dinner.
Nice ice cream spot - Alex's in Lisbon, MD
Easter Sunday was busy, beginning with the church service at 8am, the wonderful church brunch afterwards, plus a visit from the Easter bunny and an Easter egg hunt! 
Ansis volunteered to help during the children's sermon!
Very friendly and sweet bunny!
Family portrait
Later in the day we also met several friends at one of the area's best parks, Cabin John Regional, where everyone enjoyed the fresh spring air and various park activities, including riding the mini-train, sliding down slides, climbing up various jungle gyms, playing pass football, and just running around.
Lauma and Lulu - climbing to great heights!
The park was fun for everyone!
Their last evening (which followed their short foray into DC to see visit the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, and see the Washington Monument and White House) in town included a diner visit, as everyone needs to know how to use a jukebox, and more play time.
So many choices!
Play is serious work!
It was a fun visit! Now the kids know all the best parks near my place, plus have finally seen where President Obama lives.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Latvian Jazz and Two Open Houses

So many fantastic events coming up in the DC area this spring!

On Sunday, April 26, the Latvian community is having an Open House - see the poster for more information!

The following week, on Wednesday, April 29, Latvian jazz ensemble Maris Briezkalns Quintet will perform at the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage. This is a free performance. It begins at 6pm, and will be streamed live online, as well as archived for later viewing.
Maris Briezkalns Quintet (Source: Facebook)
Performances by other Latvian performers who have graced the Millennium Stage in the last several years can be seen online:
The annual European Union Open House event takes place on Saturday, May 9 from 10:00am until 4:00pm. The Embassy of Latvia will be open to visitors - stop by to see the beautiful building, and maybe catch some singing or dancing!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Become a Birdwatcher in Latvia Without Leaving Home!

Latvia is a birdwatchers' paradise, and is also known for its fast Internet. Fortunately some thoughtful and ingenious people decided to make use of technology, and thanks to a couple of cameras, folks around the world can observe two different bird nests in Latvia!

Just click on this link, and choose whether you would like to watch the rare black storks' nest, which currently is home to two eggs, or the eagles' nest, which seems to swing almost precariously high on a treetop. 
 Short descriptions are available in English, while more frequent updates are only in Latvian. There I learned that the male black stork has been named Ozols (Oak), whereas the female has been named Zīle (Acorn).
The eagle couple is named Durbe and Roberts, and sadly last month a crow had eaten one of their eggs, and possibly damaged the other.
There is definitely something both soothing and freeing in watching these beautiful beings live their life!

Friday, April 10, 2015

Sugarloaf Mountain - Winery & Hike

A sunny Sunday afternoon called for yet another outing, this to Sugarloaf Mountain and the winery that sits at its foot - Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard. Located in the furthest corner of Montgomery County, the winery is a short drive from the DC area and a wonderful destination for an outing, as witnessed by the many people imbibing on this particular day. The tasting room is not large, and can only accommodate groups of four or less at each table. There is much space outdoors, however, and a fire pit was helping keep visitors warm even on a cool day.
Unlike many wineries that only offer tastings, SMV has a larger selection of drink and snack options. The standard option of six wine tastings for $10 seemed to be the one that no one was choosing! I decided to try the sangria, which I saw quite a few other customers drinking, too. In winter months, mulled wine is offered instead of sangria. One can also buy an entire bottle of wine to enjoy, or any of their six wines by the glass. Additionally, they sell locally produced cheese, as well as a variety of chips and crackers. The only problem with the cheese was difficult-to-open plastic packaging and lack of a sharp knife to open it, as only a plastic utensil was provided.
After enjoying our wine, we drove the short distance to Sugarloaf Mountain, which - interestingly - is not owned by any government agency or entity, but rather is owned and operated by a non-profit organization. One can either park at the very foot of the mountain, and climb up, or drive up partway and climb from there. We choose the less strenuous option, although it was still a good workout. Sweeping views of the region abound.
Stairs that we used to climb down; climb up was just via mountain path/rocks.
This icicle did not yet know it's spring.
Many birds and airplanes spotted during the hike.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Waiting for Spring: Cunningham Falls State Park

Temperatures in the DC area were chillier in March than they should have been, and many days felt more like winter than spring. However, we did experience some lovely sunny days, and on a couple such cheerful occasions I ventured out for some adventures.

One outing was to Cunningham Falls State Park in Maryland with a couple of friends. Located in the Catoctin Mountains, not far from the Presidential retreat Camp David, the park is divided into two sections: one has a lake, waterfall and camping area, while the other contains another camping area, plus the historic Catoctin Iron Furnace. I had been to the waterfall several times previously, and enjoyed the short hike and lovely scenery. Due to the snow and rain we had experienced recently, I was expecting the waterfall to be more impressive than usual, and on that count I was a tad disappointed. Regardless, the easy half-mile hike to the falls was enjoyable.
We were also able inspect, touch, and hold several preserved animals that park volunteers had on display.
After our hike, we decided to drive back to the DC area on side roads. That's how we came across the Catoctin Iron Furnace Historical Area, which is also a part of the state park.
Building where furnace was located
Ruins of furnace superintendent's home
Other than the furnace building and old home to inspect, we also found the short historical trail. Naturally, we investigated to see where it would lead! The trail crossed a burbling stream, then the highway, and ended at the side of a picturesque small river. I would love to return in the summer to go wading, though I suspect it is a popular hang-out for local teenagers - we found engravings on trees to attest to that.
Bridge circa 1872! Originally wider & in a different location, it now spans Little Hunting Creek.
I can only imagine how pretty this scene is in the spring, summer, and fall!