Idyllic Bath County, Va., may not have a single traffic light, but it does claim the famous Warm Springs where Thomas Jefferson bathed and the luxurious Homestead resort in Hot Springs. And among its greatest but least known beauties is one recently introduced to me by Baltimore friends Leigh and Henry Hammond: Garth Newel country estate, built in 1924, and open to the public since 1973 as a picturesque enclave for fine music and dining.
First, there’s the physical beauty of its location 2,600 feet up a verdant, dogwood-bursting slope near the top of Warm Springs mountain. Then there are the charming Manor House and cottages where guests and visiting musicians stay in spacious, TV-free rooms and suites. Each is named for a violin maker— from Gagliano to Stradivarius— and each has a private bath. The rooms are decorated simply, in the old farmhouse tradition, and furnishings vary from room to room.
Second is the wide-ranging and beautiful music performed weekends April to December by the resident Garth Newel Piano Quartet, and by guest chamber, jazz and swing musicians, including those at the annual Virginia Blues and Jazz Festival. An average of about 100 people a weekend enjoy performances ranging from the Borromeo String Quartet to Buckwheat Zydeco to jazz pianist Mulgrew Miller.
Third is the beauty of cuisine prepared for each performance by resident chef Ed McArdle, who studied at the Culinary Institute of America and has created fine food in Bath County since 1996.
Fourth, the beauty of original art fills the bedrooms, dining room, library and hallways of the Manor House and concert hall.
Finally, the easy mingling of guests and musicians during the 50-some musical gatherings each season produces a beautiful sense of conviviality that hearkens back to a time when good music and good conversation were all the entertainment anybody ever needed.
Built in 1924 by William Sergeant Kendall for his young bride, Christine Herter Kendall, Garth Newel began with an indoor riding ring for Arabian horses, outbuildings for resident staff and a large stucco house where the couple entertained friends with musical evenings. Kendall was the retired chairman of the School of Fine Arts at Yale while his wife, first cousin of Eisenhower’s Secretary of State Christian Herter, had studied violin and played chamber music with her family, then studied painting in Paris and at Yale.
After her husband’s death, Christine Kendall met Luca and Arlene Di Cecco, cellist and violinist of the Rowe String Quartet. In the summer of 1973 the Di Ceccos started a chamber music study program for their students and the Rowe quartet began presenting regular concerts in the manor house.
“Whenever Luca played the cello, tears streamed down my face,” remembers Isabella Witt, who’s been visiting Garth Newel from Richmond for more than a decade. “Arlene would run into the kitchen in between pieces and stir what was on the stove,” remembers Ellie Roberts, whose husband, Tom, first stumbled upon Garth Newel in 1984 during a ski vacation at the Homestead and has been a frequent guest and patron since. “There is no place like it,” Tom says, high praise from a sophisticated Washington music aficionado who has traveled the world listening to classical music, and even introduced the late Washington Post music critic Joseph McClelland to Garth Newel.
While I appreciate classical music, I don’t have extensive knowledge of it. For me the combination of setting and musicians makes the music accessible and memorable. Performances take place in the former indoor riding ring, where an intimate configuration of chairs is assembled within the simple wooden walls and floors that create un-amplified, warm and crisp acoustics.
On Friday evening, after cocktails and tasty hors d’oeuvres, the Garth Newel Piano Quartet plays a rollicking piece for violin, viola, cello and piano by French composer Louise Heritte-Viardot, well-regarded in her day (1841-1918) but little known today. The second selection is the equally lively but more contemporary “Quartet Op. 23” by American composer Arthur Foote. The artistry of the quartet engages newcomers and old, and everyone sings their praises as chairs are moved to new positions around tables in the same room for dinner— a fantastic feast that begins with lobster and asparagus soup, continues with red snapper with Spanish rice and ends with roasted-strawberry-almond-crumble cobbler with mint cream made from fresh mint McArdle clipped on the property.
Filled with good food, music and stimulating conversation, I strike out on my own with a small flashlight for a walk on surrounding paths. The ink-black sky sparkles. Cold mountain air gives shine to thousands of stars I never see in Baltimore’s light-polluted night sky. The only sound is rustling beech leaves.
On Saturday, after a leisurely breakfast in the Manor House with other guests, I explore the sights and sounds of nearby small towns, including the galleries and restaurants of Monterey, about 30 miles north. The beauty of the return trip to Garth Newel, past the fast-flowing Jackson, Maury and Cowpasture rivers, with blooming tulips, daffodils, redbud and dogwood trees, is almost too much to absorb.
After another walk and a change to dress clothes, I stroll to the barn for an evening concert that includes a well-rounded duet for cello and piano by Argentinean Alberto Ginastera and “Quartet in A Major” by French composer Ernest Chausson. “This is a sophisticated group this weekend,” Jacob Yarrow, Garth Newel’s executive director, tells me of his regular patrons, many in black-tie for the season-openers, many who’ve attended more than 20 years. “We have to work hard to give them something new. While the sophisticated group has a wonderful time here,” he adds, “we are also very successful at introducing chamber music to newcomers.” Like me.
Of the three, 30- to 40-minute weekend performances, only one features the work of a composer I know. That happens Sunday morning with Beethoven’s energetic, lyrical “Archduke” piano trio. Violinist Teresa Ling tells us that the quartet plays it often but finds it continues to inspire and reveal new sides of its deaf composer. “I wish everyone in the world could hear this piece,” she concludes. As I listen, I picture warriors and heads of state laying down arms. Afterward, even these veteran listeners, not prone to perpetual standing ovations, get on their feet.
At Sunday brunch— mimosas, fresh salmon, herbed cream cheese, thinly sliced pork roast, oatmeal with dried apricots and cranberries— some guests bring children. “It’s a good way to introduce children to music,” says a proud grandmother with two. “You’ll get hooked,” winks Ann Potterfield, a regular, with her retired doctor husband. “It’s the best-kept secret,” says Sallie Feild of Charlottesville, as her friend Valeria Manson leans to talk to me about next year. “Let’s go on a hike,” she says.
I suggest Hidden Valley where Ian Coddington and his wife, Nancy, walked Saturday and returned with specific directions for this newcomer who definitely plans to dip down to Bath County for another refreshing drink of Garth Newel. The only question is: will it be for chamber music, jazz, blues or one of chef McArdle’s fall cooking classes?
Before climbing into the Hammonds’ car to head home, I walk the long driveway by the pasture to say goodbye to the black Angus cows that greeted us Friday. It’s not often I hear both cows mooing and chamber music on a Sunday morning.