by Daniel Cappello
Photographed by Julie Skarratt
The invitation was simple and elegant, with a cultivated tone. “Winter Salon: An Evening of Music and Dinner,” it announced. Knowing the hosts’ love of music—she, a former concert pianist; he, one hell of a singer who just happens to play classical guitar as a hobby—it was an easy gamble that the music would be special enough to make the trip from New York to Washington. So of course I said yes and booked an Amtrak to D.C.
For Leah and Cyrus Frelinghuysen, music—not politics, which has been a distinguished Frelinghuysen tradition dating back to the early years of the United States—is a family affair. A young virtuosa (invited frequently to perform across the country and in Europe with other advanced students), Leah moved to New York when she was nine to study at the pre-college division of Juilliard, and eventually enrolled in college there as well. She made her orchestral debut at age seven at the Kennedy Center Honors awards program, and even performed for President Reagan in the White House. She has always loved chamber music—a passion she shares with her father-in-law, Peter Frelinghuysen, a former board chair and current board member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.
Looking to share their affection for chamber music and to bring it back to its roots (it originated in European living rooms and salons—not concert halls), Leah and Cyrus devised to begin hosting a series of salon-style evenings, where chamber music would be the raison d’être. “I wanted our guests to connect with chamber music in the way it was originally meant to be experienced,” Leah explained. “Having a live chamber music group perform in your living room can be a transformative experience—for both the hosts and the guests.”
From the moment of arrivals, the evening proved to be both transformative and transportive. Opening the door to their Logan Circle home, Leah was warm and easygoing, the consummate hostess setting the tone for relaxed elegance. Cyrus was spotted swirling a cocktail on the rocks, chatting with friends who represented young D.C.: some arts set, some media types, a few lawyers, music pros, and political veterans—even an in-house White Houser. As cocktails flowed, Leah tapped a glass and introduced the musicians who’d been warming up beneath the decorative lyres adorning the walls (a fitting motif among other art that included Chinese gouaches and a drawing by the couple’s sister, Bess Frelinghuysen Ratliff, an artist who works in pastels and who’s well known for her “Feathers” series).
We gathered in the living room and sat down to realize how special a treat the evening would be. Our performers were none other than the St. Lawrence String Quartet, based at Stanford University and headed by the highly charismatic Geoff Nuttall. The New York Times once dubbed Geoff the Jon Stewart of chamber music, and that’s about spot-on. Witty, winsome, and passionate, Geoff gave us some background on the Haydn String Quartet we were about to enjoy—both Op. 20, No. 5, and Op. 33—with a smart style of storytelling that recalled your favorite college professor. We were told what to listen for in Haydn, the so-called father of chamber music, and the music—so close we could literally feel it—became real and alive. We could have gone home sated on the Haydn alone, but Geoff had a surprise up his sleeve: John Adams, one of the greatest living composers today, counting a Pulitzer, several Grammys, and a slew of arts-and-letters decorations to his name. John rose, gave a hello, and the quartet launched into his String Quartet No. 2, which was written specifically for those players.
As we broke for buffet-style dinner, which encouraged conversation, I found myself chatting with Kathe Williamson, a board member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. “Seeing small groups of performers playing and interacting right in front of you is fabulous,” she told me, “unlike a big orchestra, which is quite impersonal and where no single player stands out.” Clearly the evening made an impression. “Cyrus and Leah gathered a really interesting and smart group in their very cool house in this super hip neighborhood,” she said. Add to that a world-famous quartet and a world-class composer, and what could be better? “It was over the top.” Kathe and I agreed that having players right there to connect with captured the essence of what makes chamber music so appealing, for experienced and new listeners alike. We also overheard that Leah is talking to the California-based piano trio Latitude 41 for another concert—and hoped maybe we’d be invited back.