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Michael Tilson Thomas Q&A

The out conductor on his long career in classical music

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Michael Tilson Thomas, gay news, Washington Blade
Tilson Thomas, gay news, Washington Blade

Michael Tilson Thomas says the public ultimately decides what works are retained in the classical canon.

Washington Performing Arts presents the San Francisco Symphony

 

Kennedy Center Concert Hall

 

Saturday, April 16

 

4 p.m.

 

$55

 

washingtonperformingarts.org

 

Though just four performances, the San Francisco Symphony’s current East Coast mini-tour features two programs.

The symphony will perform on Saturday, April 16 at 4 p.m. at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall performing Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 “Unfinished” and Gustav Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde.” The players will be joined by mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and tenor Simon O’Neill. Two days prior, they’ll perform the same program at Carnegie Hall. The symphony will explore works by Copland and Schumann at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center this weekend.

We caught up with Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas, now in his 21st season with the symphony with whom he’s shared 12 Grammys, by phone this week. His comments have been slightly edited for length.

Michael Tilson Thomas, gay news, Washington Blade

Michael Tilson Thomas, music director of the San Francisco Symphony, says managing an orchestra like a business is a mistake. (Photo by Bill Swerbenski; courtesy San Francisco Symphony)

WASHINGTON BLADE: You’ve recorded many Mahler symphonies. What is it about his music that continues to resonate with you?

MICHAEL TILSON-THOMAS: His music is very central to my whole view of life and that was evident from the first time I heard his music when I was around 13. This piece in fact, which we’re about to play in Washington, “Das Lied von der Erde,” I heard the last movement, the farewell, called “Der Abschied,” and it was stunning, a shock to me to hear music which so completely described the shape of my own soul and what I felt to be my parents’ souls, where all the kind of aching questions about the meaning of life and all sorts of questions which I hadn’t even consciously formed, but somehow I just knew this was a testimony that meant so much to me. Part of that was the musical presentation of situations where there can be bitterness or frustration or conflict, but nonetheless there’s still an element of beauteousness as well. For me, the message of the music is to hold on to the beauteousness at whatever the cost. That resonated with me from the first moment and still does.

BLADE: Does the Schubert symphony you’re also performing contrast with or complement the Mahler?

TILSON-THOMAS: Schubert (was) … using this sort of haunted language that was very Czech-influenced because his parents came from what is now the Czech Republic and of course Mahler did as well, so there is this sort of major/minor haunted harmonic language that’s part of it. … On the piano you have a note which you sometimes call E flat or sometimes you call it D sharp. On the piano, it’s the same note, but in orchestral music, these two notes are actually different notes. They do different things and they lead in different directions. Schubert and Mahler are both constantly reinterpreting the meaning of a note. … You’re being kind of guided, pulled back and forth across the line of the meaning of a single note taking you into a brighter or darker world. That’s very much what they’re playing with.

BLADE: As you perform around the country and the world, do you sense differences in how the audiences receive the work?

TILSON-THOMAS: I think we’re very aware of the different audiences. They’re ectoplasmic almost. You come off the stage and you can just sense a certain energy and focus in the hall and that does affect the way you feel about the music. I’m fond of saying these big places for me are like national parks that you return to. You’ve wandered there before, but the company with which you find yourself is different and has an enormous influence on what the nature of the experience is going to be.

BLADE: Have you been insulated to some degree in San Francisco from the kinds of challenges many of our other national symphonies are facing?

TILSON-THOMAS: No, I wouldn’t say so. Like all the major orchestras, we’ve experienced different kinds of crises and growing pains, visions coalescing as different generations have moved through the orchestra. … These things are inevitable. I’ve been performing symphonic music now for 50 years. I started when I was 20, so I’ve seen many changes happen in music and society and music coming from China and Venezuela and parts of the world from which we didn’t used to see so many people. The growth of all these things is a very positive thing in the big picture. So there’s a very positive growth state and at the same time, there are definitely growing pains in society itself. How are these things going to be sustained and grown and what do young musicians coming into the profession desire? What kind of life do they want to have? All these things are being turned over and discussed even as we speak.

BLADE: Are you pressured to perform film scores or saw away under pop acts or that sort of thing to bring in new people? Or have you tried to stave off that sort of thing?

TILSON-THOMAS: There’s a balance that needs to be struck and there’s always going to be a concern of having too many programs that would be apart from the central mission of the orchestra. Not just in symphony orchestras but with any arts organization. There’s a lot of talk about searching for sustainable business models … but these are not businesses. These are idealistic organizations that are communities of people that were established to share a particular art as a living tradition and strengthening and preserving that and passing it on to many generations. That’s the real purpose. It’s necessary perhaps in each new generation to remind ourselves that’s what we’re doing and what we need to do.

BLADE: Your bio makes reference to your work “reimagining the concert experience.” In what ways have you done that?

TILSON-THOMAS: I’ve been very involved with multi-media, new technology and something of a pioneer in using the online resource Internet2 to reach people with educational messages in territories around the world. … Most recently with a process called LOLA, an information system that reduces online latencies and makes it possible now within a thousand kilometers to perform music with someone as if you’re really in the same room with them. … With the New World Symphony, we’ve done a lot of work in video that has been ahead of the curve. Not just concert performance videos … but creating kind of art installations inside the concert hall.

BLADE: Have you always been out professionally?

TILSON-THOMAS: Oh, I don’t know. That’s hard to answer. Joshua (Robison) and I got married a couple years ago but we’ve been together 40 years. Since the very beginning, we were together very clearly with no disguise and that goes back quite a ways at this point. To us, that didn’t seem so remarkable. We worked together in a production company that makes a lot of different musical products and education projects happen around the world and we’ve always done that. We haven’t been involved, as many others have been, in any courageous crusade of one type or another. We supported those things and I have such respect for people who did that. On the other hand, people now say it was somewhat extraordinary that we were living our lives that way in terms of being transparent about being together then and that was unusual, I guess, at the time.

BLADE: How gay are our orchestras in general?

TILSON-THOMAS: I’d say a very rough number would be maybe 10 percent or something like that. Maybe more.

BLADE: Perhaps more in San Francisco?

TILSON-THOMAS: Not necessarily. Orchestras are very individual animals. It was, of course, different when I first began conducting. In any major orchestra there might have been one or two people who were not even out but everybody just kind of knew they were gay. As opposed to now when there are many people in all the major orchestras who are LGBT and it’s not in any way a big deal and certainly not with the many young musicians. If people are thinking they might make music with someone, what’s going on with their gender or sexuality is of no interest whatsoever. If you’re talking about where you’re placing the third of a major chord or issues of tuning or articulation, then that’s a big deal.

BLADE: It’s interesting when you see the kinds of people given the Kennedy Center Honors over time and how popular acts are now being inducted much more often than performers from the classical arts. At the same time, there’s a lot of hand wringing in our symphonies and opera companies and so on. I could give tons of examples. Is society being slowly dumbed down over time?

TILSON-THOMAS: Well there are different kinds of occasions that serve different purposes. There are lots of awards and prizes that are given for certain types of work, like the MacArthur Fellows or the Pulitzer Prizes or the great number of other awards and prizes that are given to people whose names would be little known to the general public, but which nonetheless exert quite an influence within various arts worlds. … Some of these things are much more of an occasion in certain realms than something like the Grammys or the Oscars or those kinds of things which are really more shows. It used to be that if you were from the classical arts and you were up for a Grammy, you would go to the Grammys and you were presented with it there. That no longer happens. Something might happen in a hotel lobby earlier in the day or something because those awards are not in the mainstream.

BLADE: They only give out about six on the air anymore out of 90-some categories or whatever it is.

TILSON-THOMAS: Yeah, well, I guess in any art there will always be different sides. You have people doing quite specific work which they know from the beginning will appeal to a small number of people. Other people are working in much wider areas but it’s extraordinary at this particular moment, the diversity of work that is taking place. It’s really quite remarkable the very interesting experimentations with styles that a lot of people are doing. A lot of people are writing and thinking new thoughts, way more than you would think based on the gloomy predictions that are often made about the future of all of this. It’s not quite the way it looks from the outside when you see all the young people out there creating new work.

BLADE: Would you say the works of Mahler and Schubert don’t carry quite the cultural gravitas they might have a generation ago perhaps?

TILSON-THOMAS: I saw something in San Francisco the other night and one of the pieces on the program was written in 1199. It was the earliest and the most recent piece was written in 1963. So it’s extraordinary how much has changed in that period of 7- or 800 years. There were certain things about that piece from 1199 that were very reminiscent of works by Steve Reich or John Adams and that are still very influential in contemporary musical thought. A composer like Schubert or Mahler, the reaction to whom at the time was often hostility or incomprehension, over time it has been proven that there was something in that music that people wanted to come back to. Ideas that proved to be so powerful, so moving and so authentic that people wanted to hear them again and again and it’s fascinating because it’s the audience that makes that decision. I can be a big fan of some particular composer and can champion that composer through many times and create situations in which their music will be presented, but ultimately 10 or 15 or 20 years later, it will be the public that decides if that music means enough that they want to hear it again.

BLADE: Has audience etiquette improved or deteriorated to any noticeable degree over the course of your career?

TILSON-THOMAS: It’s very different in different places and even on different evenings. These things are very different from city to city and country to country. Even in San Francisco, there’s a certain sense of what the character of the audience is like. The Wednesday night audience, the Thursday night audience, they’re all slightly different in their reactions and in their focus. We created a new series called SoundBox which is designed for people who’ve never been to classical music concerts before with very experimental repertoire and it uses video projection and other things and is kind of set in a club atmosphere. Drinks are served and you have 20 minutes of music then 20 minutes of lounge-type activity and then the music comes back. Well, in fact these audiences are more quiet and focused than the subscription audience can be. They’re totally focused. When the music starts, they’re totally in it. What for me has been particularly gratifying is that with some of this earlier music we’ve been doing, we did one piece by Monteverdi from 1610, so many young people came up and said how transporting it was and you think, “God, here’s something from 400 years ago that can reach out and have that kind of emotional effect.” That really is one of the greatest treasures of my life.

Michael Tilson Thomas, gay news, Washington Blade

Michael Tilson Thomas (Photo by Spencer Lowell; courtesy San Francisco Symphony)

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CAMP Rehoboth’s president talks pandemic, planning, and the future

Wesley Combs marks six months in new role

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Wesley Combs took over as president of CAMP Rehoboth six months ago and is now focused on searching for a new permanent executive director. (Blade photo by Daniel Truitt)

June marks half a year since Wesley Combs stepped into his role as president of CAMP Rehoboth. In a conversation with the Blade, Combs recounted his first six months in the position — a time he said was characterized by transition and learning.

Since 1991, CAMP Rehoboth has worked to develop programming “inclusive of all sexual orientations and gender identities” in the Rehoboth Beach, Del. area, according to the nonprofit’s website. As president, Combs oversees the organization’s board of directors and executive director, helping determine areas of focus and ensure programming meets community needs.

For Combs, his more than three decades of involvement with CAMP Rehoboth have shaped the course of his life. In the summer of 1989 — just before the organization’s creation — he met his now-husband, who was then living in a beach house with Steve Elkins and Murray Archibald, CAMP Rehoboth’s founders.

Since then, he has served as a financial supporter of the organization, noting that it has been crucial to fostering understanding that works against an “undercurrent of anti-LGBTQ sentiment” in Rehoboth Beach’s history that has, at times, propagated violence against LGBTQ community members.

In 2019, after Elkins passed away, Combs was called upon by CAMP Rehoboth’s Board of Directors to serve on a search committee for the organization’s next executive director. Later that year, he was invited to become a board member and, this past November, was elected president.

Combs noted that CAMP Rehoboth is also still recovering from the pandemic, and is working to restart programming paused in the switch to remote operations. In his first six months, he has sought to ensure that people feel “comfortable” visiting and engaging with CAMP Rehoboth again, and wants to ensure all community members can access its programming, including those from rural parts of Delaware and those without a means of getting downtown.

Still, Combs’s first six months were not without unexpected turns: On May 31, David Mariner stepped down from his role as CAMP Rehoboth executive director, necessitating a search for his replacement. Combs noted that he would help facilitate the search for an interim director to serve for the remainder of the year and ensure that there is “a stable transition of power.” CAMP Rehoboth last week announced it has named Lisa Evans to the interim director role.

Chris Beagle, whose term as president of CAMP Rehoboth preceded Combs’s own, noted that the experience of participating in a search committee with the organization will “better enable him to lead the process this time.”

Before completing his term, Beagle helped prepare Combs for the new role, noting that the “combination of his professional background, his executive leadership (and) his passion for the organization” make Combs a strong president. Regarding the results of the election, “I was extremely confident, and I remain extremely confident,” Beagle said.

Bob Witeck, a pioneer in LGBTQ marketing and communications, has known Combs for nearly four decades. The two founded a public relations firm together in 1993 and went on to work together for 20 years, with clients ranging from major businesses like Ford Motor Company to celebrities including Chaz Bono and Christopher Reeve. According to Witeck, Combs’s work in the firm is a testament to his commitment to LGBTQ advocacy.

“Our firm was the first founded primarily to work on issues specific to LGBTQ identities, because we wanted to counsel corporations about their marketing and media strategies and working in the LGBTQ market,” he explained. By helping develop communications strategies inclusive of those with LGBTQ identities, Combs established a background of LGBTQ advocacy that truly “made a mark,” Witeck said.

Witeck emphasized that, in his new position, Combs brings both business experience and a renewed focus on historically underrepresented in LGBTQ advocacy — including people with disabilities, trans people and people of color.

Looking to the rest of the year, CAMP Rehoboth hopes to host a larger-scale event during Labor Day weekend. In addition, the organization will revisit its strategic plan — first developed in 2019 but delayed due to the pandemic — and ensure it still meets the needs of the local community, Combs said. He added that he intends to reexamine the plan and other programming to ensure inclusivity for trans community members.

“CAMP Rehoboth continues to be a vital resource in the community,” he said. “The focus for the next two years is to make sure we’re doing and delivering services that meet the needs of everyone in our community.”

Wesley Combs, gay news, Washington Blade
Wesley Combs (Washington Blade photo by Daniel Truitt)
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Melissa Etheridge shares Q&A in advance of April 26 Tysons tour stop

Rock pioneer finds inspiration in the past — from revisiting old demos to reconnecting with celeb pals like Ellen

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Melissa Etheridge brings her ‘One Way Out Tour’ to the D.C. region next week with a show at the new Capital One Hall in Tysons. (Photo by Elizabeth Miranda; courtesy Primary Wave)

Melissa Etheridge
‘One Way Out Tour’
Tuesday, April 26
Capital One Hall
7750 Capital One Tower Rd.
Tysons, VA
7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $55
ticketmaster.com
capitalonehall.com
melissaetheridge.com

We caught up with rock legend Melissa Etheridge on April 8 by phone from Snoqualmie, Wash. — it’s about 26 miles east of Seattle —where she was playing the Snoqualmie Casino on her “One Way Out Tour,” which plays our region on Tuesday, April 26. 

It’s named after her latest album, released last fall, which found Etheridge, who’s been out since ’93, revisiting demos from early in her career.

Her comments have been slightly edited for length.

WASHINGTON BLADE: “One Way Out” sounds like such a cool project. Was it all re-recorded stuff of old songs or were some of those vintage takes on the record as well?

MELISSA ETHERIDGE: The last two songs, the live songs, were from where? From 2002? OK, but the other songs were newly recorded. 

BLADE: And how many of them did you remember?

ETHERIDGE: You know, when I found them again, they all came back very clearly. And I was like, “Oh, this is — why did I throw that away? That’s weird.” And I really enjoyed, you know, hearing them, they were just old demos. I’d never done full-blown recordings. So I thought, “This is great, I want to do these songs.”

BLADE: We have a relatively new venue you’re going to be playing, Capital One Hall. I’ve only been there once. You excited?

ETHERIDGE: Yeah, it’s always fun. I love the D.C.-area crowd. It’s just really, really nice.

BLADE: And how do you decide where you’ll be? Or do you have any say in it? 

ETHERIDGE: Well, it’s not necessarily me. I do have a say in it, in what I want the whole tour to look like. But it is really up to William Morris, my agent, to find the right venue that understands what we need and the kind of atmosphere we’re looking for that and the amount of people and, you know, that sort of thing.

BLADE: Tell me about Etheridge TV. I just wonder, when we were in that acute phase of the pandemic, wasn’t it even remotely tempting to you to just take a break?

ETHERIDGE: No, because since I was 12 years old, I sang all the time for people, like five days a week and it’s just been what I do. And so when it was like, I was looking at a massive, cavernous amount of time that I was going to be home, I still needed a way to pay the bills, so we put our heads together — I’ve got one of the greatest television minds with me, you know, my wife (TV producer Linda Wallem), so I had the space and I had the equipment, and I was like, “Let’s do it.” And it was really fun to learn new things. It was fun to learn about computers and sound and streaming and lights and cameras and all these things that I didn’t know. … I feel a little smarter.

BLADE: When did you start back on the road?

ETHERIDGE: We went out last fall. We went out September, October, right around there. And you know, it was a little different, Now things are things are loosening up … but some places still require masks. But people are starting to get back out and it feels good. It’s not the overwhelming thing that it was a few months ago.

BLADE: And what was it like being on ‘Ellen’ again for her final season?

ETHERIDGE: Oh, I love her. She’s such an old friend. You know, I say that about myself, too. (chuckles) But, you know, she’s just a relationship in my life that I have treasured. We’ve watched each other grow and the changes we’ve made and the successes and what we’ve gone through and I love that she had me on and just it was just a really — she’s a dear friend. And she showed an old photo there, and we both said, “Oh, that was before we were so busy.”

BLADE: Do you talk to her often?

ETHERIDGE: I would say we see each other socially once or twice a year. It just seemed like once we started having children, all my friends from my 20s and 30s when we were not as busy — it just gets harder to stay in touch and life got crazy. 

BLADE: So when you were hanging out back in the day with Ellen and Rosie and everybody, how was it that Brad Pitt was in that group too? 

ETHERIDGE: Well, my girlfriend (Julie Cypher) had been married to Lou Diamond Phillips and we were all very good friends with Dermot Mulroney and Catherine Keener and Catherine Keener did a movie with Brad, like a movie nobody saw, like Johnny Dangerously or something (1991’s “Johnny Suede”), some really weird movie. So I met Brad before he was terribly famous. He was a part of that group. There was a whole group of all of us that just hung out, and we were all totally different. We were just like young, hungry Hollywood and we’d talk about, “Oh, I had this audition,” or “I went and did this,” and we were just all trying to make it in that town. So we’d get together and have fun. 

BLADE: I was so terribly sorry to hear about Beckett (Etheridge’s son, who died in 2020 at age 21 after struggling with opioid addiction). How are you and the rest of the family, especially (Beckett’s twin) Bailey, dealing with it now?

ETHERIDGE: There are many, many families like us that deal with a loss like that. It just blows a family sideways. But we have a deep love and connection, all of us. We all knew he had a problem and it’s a problem that starts way before he actually passes, so it was not a surprise. So now we’re just living with the missing aspect. You try not to think about what could have been and you try to think about him in a happier place and that he’s out of pain, so that helps us.

BLADE: Had he and Bailey been as close in recent years?

ETHERIDGE: They were very close, but in the last couple of years as he made worse and worse choices, we couldn’t support that, so they were less close, but of course in her heart, it was her brother, he was very dear to her. 

BLADE: Did you watch the Grammys?  Was there anybody you were particularly rooting for?

ETHERIDGE: I watched bits and pieces of it. I had a show that night, so I didn’t get to see the main thing, but I have seen pieces and I just love the crazy diversity and you know, the TikTok people winning stuff, it’s like, “Wow, this is so not the Grammys I remember from the ’80s,” but that was what, 30 years ago? So it’s all good.

BLADE: You were such a perennial favorite back in the day in the best rock female category. Were you pissed when they eliminated it? 

ETHERIDGE: It’s sad because I felt like the criteria they were using to judge what is female rock, they just really dropped the ball. I still think there are some amazing musicians that could be considered, you know, rock, but it feels like we’re having a hard time even defining what rock and roll is now anyway. There’s a whole bunch of strong women out there playing, rocking, you know, playing guitar, being excellent musicians and songwriters. If you can’t call it best rock female, OK, call it something else. 

BLADE: I remember so vividly when you were on the Grammys in 2005, in the midst of chemo, when you sang “Piece of My Heart.” I remember you saying you were wondering how people would react to seeing you bald. Having been through that, any thoughts on the Will/Jada Oscars situation since her baldness, too, was due to a medical condition? 

ETHERIDGE: You know, it’s funny, I did feel a little remembrance of (thinking), “I just hope people don’t make fun of me.” That was kind of the first thing because to go out there bald, that was so different for me as an artist whose hair had kind of defined her. I was thinking, “How am I gonna rock without my hair?” I thought people might make fun of me, but I got over that. I just thought, “Well, if somebody makes fun of me, that just makes them look bad.” So I just walked through it. And you know, it’s hard to draw the line between what’s funny and what’s painful and how to look at something. I feel for all parties involved. 

BLADE: When you go on these cruises, do fans give you some space or do they swarm around the minute you walk out? Is it even enjoyable for you? 

ETHERIDGE: Yeah, it is. You know, we did our last one, now we’re doing Etheridge Island, we now have a destination in Mexico, outside of Cancun, it’s just this island that we’re going to that is really fantastic. But I do I make myself available, I don’t run away. When I have to be somewhere, I have a great company we work with called Sixthman that knows how to get me from point A to point B without being bogged down. But I do my make myself available. Everyone gets a picture with me. It’s my work, but I love it. I try to make myself available but also have some time just for myself too.

Melissa Etheridge says slowing down wasn’t an option for her when the pandemic hit. She’s glad to be back on the road now, she says. (Photo by Elizabeth Miranda; courtesy Primary Wave)

BLADE: You Tweeted a few nights ago about having a tight curfew of just 90 minutes at a casino but then it worked out and you got to do a full set. Why are the curfews so tight at casinos?  

ETHERIDGE: Why do you think? They want people at the tables. Like for tonight, we we settled on 100 minutes. They’re giving me 10 extra minutes. I don’t like it, but in some areas, the only really good venue is a casino, so if you want to reach your folks there, you kind of have to meet them half way. 

BLADE: Yeah, but it seems like in concert halls, the curfews can sometimes be really tight too. Even Madonna got her lights shut off a couple years ago. Of course, she’s notoriously late, but why are they so strict with these things nowadays? 

ETHERIDGE: There are all different situations — concert halls often have union crews that will absolutely shut you down if you go one second over. There are also sound curfews, noise curfews, mostly with outdoor venues, but sometimes indoor as well. They have an agreement with the neighborhood. So you have people in the neighborhood standing by with their phones ready to pounce the minute it goes over one minute, they’re gonna call the police. As a performer, you just realize, “OK, it’s not just about me.” When I don’t have a curfew, I usually land at about two hours and some change. That seems comfortable to everyone. Any longer and I think I’m wearing my audience out. When I’m at a place with a shorter show, I just do my best. 

BLADE: I know you’re a big Chiefs fan. Did you watch that game back in January all the way to the end? 

ETHERIDGE: Well, at the end of it, I was on the floor. My wife was like, “Honey, honey, there’s still 13 seconds,” and I was moaning and sort of getting my feet on the floor and, you know, laying down and throwing a fit. And she’s like, “No, there’s still 13 seconds.” I dragged myself back to the television. And I couldn’t believe it. I was like, “Wait a minute. Did we just win?” You know, just really crazy, really crazy stuff. … When you’re a fan like that, it’s a ride you can’t fully explain.

BLADE: Are you in a cordial or good place with your exes? Does it get easier when the kids are starting to grow up?

ETHERIDGE: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. And you realize that it’s best for the kids if you can really get along and that any sort of conflict that can’t get resolved, that gets emotional, does no good for anyone. And absolutely, I have, I’ve gotten better at that as the years have gone by.

BLADE: Do you have the slightest inkling yet what the next studio album might be like?

ETHERIDGE: Well, I’ve got some interesting projects that I’m not ready to talk about just yet. But they have to do with my life story. There’s a lot of digging up of my past and really telling the story. So I imagine the next series of music you’ll get from me is going to be very focused on my journey. 

Melissa Etheridge, gay news, Washington Blade
Melissa Etheridge (Photo by Elizabeth Miranda; courtesy Primary Wave)
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New Cranes sommelier brings spirit to wine and sake program

Stewart-Woodruff curates eclectic list for Michelin-starred restaurant

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‘I bring my whole self to work,’ says Eric Stewart-Woodruff. (Photo by Rey Lopez)

Outfitted in a blue damask dinner jacket with satin lapels and an energetic smile, Eric Stewart-Woodruff carves an impressive figure when chatting about his favorite vintages. Stewart-Woodruff, who’s gay, is the new sommelier at Michelin-starred Cranes in Penn Quarter.

Stewart-Woodruff curates an eclectic wine – and sake – program focusing on pairings with celebrated Chef Pepe Moncayo’s innovative, global flavors. Cranes, which explores intersections of Spanish and Japanese cuisine, opened just before the pandemic, and received a coveted Michelin star in 2021.

Stewart-Woodruff did not start off in the wine industry. In fact, he does not have any formal training in wine. Instead, after a career as a professional photographer, he pivoted to the restaurant industry, where he developed his love of wine. While working for a distributor, he connected with D.C.’s own District Winery. This opportunity allowed him to express his truest self, as a lead tour guide, wine ambassador and sommelier. He credits his identity and personality as his reason for thriving.

“I bring my whole self to work,” he says, “offering a level of humanity and approachability.” 

After the pandemic temporarily shuttered District Winery, Stewart-Woodruff found himself interviewing at Cranes, enamored with Moncayo’s “creative vision,” he says – and was sold. He began in late summer of 2021.

Through his work in hospitality, Stewart-Woodruff notes that the industry can be hetero-male dominated. He has been able to break through by not holding back on his identity.

“I tend to play with expectations of what a sommelier may look or act like,” he says. “I move away from what one may stereotypically look like, but still present like one.”

For him, that means talking about wine and wine education “as if it were gossip,” he says. “I like to view wine like we are at brunch. Wine has personality, it’s performative, and it has stereotypes.” He is seeking to break molds of specific likes and dislikes, exploring the depth that wine has to offer, in the context of the Spanish-Japanese Cranes menu. In fact, he says, Moncayo is supportive of his innovative, certification-less angle. “I become more relatable,” he says.

He also presents original events. He paired with local guest sommelier Andrew Stover (also a gay man) on Tuesday, March 29 for a springtime showcase of specialty rosé wines paired with Moncayo’s dishes. The duo poured tastes of specialty, small-batch wines from Brazil, Italy, Spain, Uruguay, and Maryland.

Leaning into the innovative spirit, the wine-by-glass list is not split by color. Instead, it is divided into evocative categories. For example, both a chardonnay and a pinot noir fall into the “Elegant, round, and mellow” category.

As a Spanish-Japanese restaurant, Cranes not only possesses an extensive wine cellar, but has consistently expanded its sake program. Sakes by the glass are split into the same exact categories. The very same “Elegant, round, and mellow” list includes Ginjo Nama Genshu and junmai daiginjo.

Stewart-Woodruff explains that wine and sake should be attended to similarly. “Sake is something you can think about like a beer in terms of production but treat like a wine,” he says. Sake is a fermented polished-rice beverage, dating back more than two millennia in Japan.

“Sake has aromatics, texture, body, and finish.” He takes pride in discussing customers’ palate preferences, and turning them onto a specific sake, for their qualities of earthiness, acidity, or others.

“Many people don’t experience sake outside of college or bars. Now, I can be a sommelier for sake, and for the marriage of Eastern and Western cuisine and beverage.” He expresses excitement at being innovative in his sake beverage pairings, occupying a niche space. When discussing both wine and sake, he aims to bring an artistic flair and tour-guide enthusiasm to the table.

Woodruff credits his identity and background for his success. He aims to bring a level of humanity and approachability to what has been a formal, stuffy area. He has high ambitions to portray sake as sophisticated as wine in the customer’s mind, “but it pairs well with Moncayo’s conceptually ambitious menu,” he says.

“Wine and sake are as eclectic as humanity. I want people to accept experiencing wine like the world has accepted me.”

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