Ouch! I know what you’re thinking — “he’s a wax figure!” or, perhaps, “they’re both wax figures!” Alas, we’re both very real — and sure enough, that’s me standing next to our very own President Bush, at the White House on Wednesday evening. Two hours later, I was at the Washington Greyhound station, waiting for the bus back to New York. Good times were had on both.
I met the First Lady, too. All thanks to a chance meeting with the brilliant conductor Alondra de la Parra at my beloved Cafe La Fortuna two years ago. As I remember, I was sitting in the rear terrace, working on my arrangement of Kayhan Kalhor’s “The Silent City” for Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, when Alondra walked in with a photographer friend, and before long, she convinced me to perform with her young orchestra, newly renamed as the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas.
The orchestra was in Washington on Wednesday to cap its first international tour, which included performances in New York (at the Skirball Center, NYU), Dallas (at Meyerson Hall), Mexico City (three concerts — one in the gardens at Chapultepec, another at the Belles Artes, and another at Sala Nezahualcóyotl). Our last concert, at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, was attended by the First Lady, and can be streamed in entirety here. (And, here’s a direct link to my arrangements of two Piazzola tangos, which we also performed on this concert.)
But you probably want to know about the White House visit?
We had no idea that the President himself would welcome us, as originally it was supposed to be a reception with (just!) the First Lady, and in either case both Abbas and Olmert were in Washington, with Israeli-Palestinian peace in the balance. But to our surprise, there he was, greeting us without a hint of fatigue, patiently posing for photographs with each musician, making conversation with each musician, telling interesting bits about his last visit to this or that person’s hometown, thanking each musician for asking to take a picture. He apologized several times for the traffic jams that his visits cause.
I felt somehow shy about the honor of meeting the President, thought of how many troops aspire to this moment, how many days in the field, training.. And there I was. (Granted, I did spend 15+ years learning to play the viola…)
For a while, I was just taking pictures for everyone, waiting my turn. Eventually, it came to me, and then he said:
“You must be the most patient guy in the world. Where are you from?”
Upon hearing that I came from Moscow, he launched into a well-thought-out soliloquy about the beauty of Moscow, how it has changed, and how optimistic he was about Russia’s progress, about his hopes for its growing middle class. He said that he liked Putin, but didn’t appreciate his anti-American sentiment..
I didn’t disagree. I felt honored that the President took time to speak with me and share his mind. The issues and opinions didn’t matter — it was the sheer luster of the moment, which lasted longer than I could ever imagine. Surely he had better intelligence than I.
I walked around some more along the more private parts of the Whitehouse, including the Queen’s and Lincoln Bedroom. I walked to the State Floor, to see it all decorated for the Holidays. It was all very grand, but not the same opulent way as I’ve seen rooms decorated at some New York weddings. There was an aura of restraint, of space, a certain modesty. It wasn’t cozy or intimate, though by no means were the rooms very big. See all of my pictures from the White House here.
So there it was, my first time at the White House, hopefully not the last. Two hours later, I took the Metro to the Greyhound Station, where I watched the talking heads endlessly rehashing the latest presidential debate, followed by a special on “Campaign Killers”. I bought a turkey sandwich full of preservatives, and drank it down with a bottle of Dasani “electrolyte” water. On the bus, a man behind me snored louder than some can scream. By morning, I was home.
WARNING: I’m going to allow comments on this entry, for now. Any flaming comments will be deleted without further warning. This is not at all about politics or free speech, it’s simply about a recollection of meeting the President and touring the White House. Please leave it be. Thanks.