It’s early on a crisp, clear morning in July — hours before the first tourists will start to arrive — and Dame Emily Naper is walking through the ruins of her old ancestral castle, thinking about butterflies.
“Manorbier is a magical place, the most romantic castle in the world,” she says of this picturesque 12th Century manor on the rugged coast of Wales, which she inherited three years ago. “I collected butterflies and wildflowers here as a girl, and I want to keep it natural. It’s better for the imagination, don’t you think?”
On this gorgeous morning, with the sun turning the high stone battlements to gold over our heads, it’s impossible to disagree. There may be, in fact, few medieval ruins in the world as unspoiled and naturally beautiful as Manorbier Castle. Set on a remote ridge over a small bay, this once-lavish estate has weathered the past nine centuries with remarkable grace, and everywhere you turn are the ruins of a vanished world — a kitchen fireplace large enough to roast an ox, limestone floors worn smooth with time, narrow staircases spiraling up through battle-scarred towers.
It feels forgotten and almost dreamlike here, as if we’d stumbled into a place undisturbed for centuries. And when Naper pushes open a postern door to the outside, a landscape appears that nearly takes my breath away: meadows of wildflowers sweeping down to the glittering sea, with the cliffs of the rugged Welsh coastline stretching off into the distance.
“I may never leave,” I tell her, a little intoxicated by the view. “Well,” she says with a playful grin, “if you’re interested in investing ….”
But much as we’d like to, my wife and I haven’t come to this idyllic spot — the last privately-owned medieval castle in Wales — to buy in.
In fact, we’re here on a kind of pilgrimage. Last year, I’d come across a long-forgotten genealogy of my mother’s family, which traced our ancestors back to a Norman knight named Odo. A leader of William the Conqueror’s invasion of Wales, Odo had been rewarded in 1093 with huge estates along the Welsh coast, and made a Baron. He took the name “de Barri” from a nearby island, built a castle, and settled down to start a family.
And that all led, some 900 years later, to this trip. For Odo de Barri, it turned out, was not only the builder of Manorbier Castle — he was also my 26th great-grandfather, and the man who gave my mother’s family, the Barrys, its name.
So, like anyone who discovers a castle in the family, we decided to go and have a look. And after tracking down the charming Dame Emily, who promptly offered to come meet us at Manorbier (from her, ahem, other castle, in Ireland), we flew to London at the end of June and caught the five-hour train to Tenby, a seaside town in the Welsh county of Pembrokeshire, just a few miles down the road.
To be honest, we’d never really paid much attention to Wales before this. Tucked between England and Ireland, the whole country is only about the size of Massachusetts, and doesn’t have much in the way of famous attractions. As far as we knew, Wales was equal parts coal mines, Dylan Thomas, and possibly sheep.
But as we waited for Naper to arrive in Pembrokeshire, we discovered that this southwest corner of Wales was both steeped in history and spectacularly beautiful. Surrounded on three sides by the ocean, it has what may be the most dramatic coastline in Britain, and if you’re ambitious enough you can hike its entire 186-mile length along the protected Pembrokeshire Coastal Path. Not being that ambitious, we tackled a significantly shorter stretch, but even that was unforgettable; it’s not for nothing that National Geographic ranks this as the second-best such path in the world.
And if hiking’s not your thing, you can go whale-watching off the coast, inspect rare puffins in the wildlife preserves, or try the local sport of “coasteering,” which we were told (before we ran away, whimpering) involves helmets, wetsuits, and “flinging yourself from towering vertical rock faces."
Tenby itself, meanwhile, turned out to be a pleasantly old-fashioned seaside resort with cobblestone streets and pastel-colored Victorian houses, perched almost jauntily on a cliff over the ocean. With great restaurants and any number of sun-drenched cafes to choose from, we could have happily lazed away our week there doing pretty much nothing at all.
But we’d had the good fortune to meet one of the most intriguing people in Pembrokeshire. Marc Treanor, a fifty-something artist, philosopher and genial free spirit, makes a living carving vast geometric “sand circles” into the beaches of Wales. Intricate and immense — they can run fifty yards across— and not unlike crop circles, his creations can only be fully seen from above. And Tenby, with its high cliffside promenades looking down over flat sandy beaches, makes a near-perfect canvas.
So we met up with Treanor on Tenby’s North Beach one gray afternoon for a private workshop, and for the next few hours — using only long wooden sticks, a ball of string, and a daunting amount of concentration — we drew a series of long, intersecting curves in the sand, darkening sections here and there with metal rakes. From ground level, it just looked like a lot of scratches. But we noticed that a crowd had gathered on the cliff above us, and when we finally put down our rakes and climbed up to join them, we saw what we’d created: a gigantic, mandala-like “flower of life” that seemed to blossom out of the sand. It felt like we had tattooed the world.
“Ah, but now comes the best part,” Treanor said, pointing out at the tide. “By tomorrow, it will have all washed away. It’s ephemeral. And that’s what makes it beautiful.”
That philosophy might, in a way, also apply to Wales’ main attraction: its ancient castles. There are some 600 of them scattered around the country — more than anywhere else in Europe — ranging from rudimentary earthworks to restored manor houses, and most have fallen into a state of picturesque, even poetic, decay. The remnants of Cilgerran Castle, for instance, are so mercilessly poignant that they were a tourist attraction way back in the 18th Century, and there are few sights as sigh-inducing as the elegant ruins of Carew Castle at sunset.
That poetry, though, tends to evaporate when you’re being guided around in a herd, and Pembrokeshire’s most famous castles — Carew, the historic fortress of Pembroke, the elegantly-preserved Picton and a few others — are fixtures on the well-worn tourist route, with hordes of visitors trudging through every day.
Those castles are still worth seeing, but it’s far more rewarding to get off the beaten track. So the next morning we navigated Pembrokeshire’s narrow lanes to a tiny, remote village by the sea, walked down a stately drive, crossed over a grassy, long-dry moat and found ourselves, quite alone, at the door of Manorbier Castle.
“Nobody knows we’re here!” Naper cheerfully greeted us, as she bustled around with her small staff, getting the place ready to open for the day.
Given its beauty and spectacular setting, it’s odd that Manorbier has remained so overlooked. First built by Odo de Barri in earth and timber, the castle was rebuilt in stone by his son William around 1140 and expanded over the next two hundred years, to include a chapel, guard towers and barns within the high curtain walls, all of which remain. But after passing out of Barry hands in the 14th Century, Manorbier gradually declined, and by 1630 was being described as “ruynous.”
And little has changed since.
“It was like the Titanic when I first came here,” Naper told us, over a cup of tea in the courtyard. She’s made necessary repairs, cleaned up the gardens and and developed ways to boost income (castles are insatiable money pits), from opening a small cafe, to hosting weddings in the chapel, to presenting evenings of opera in the open courtyard. But she has little use for the guided tours and elaborate displays of her competitors, and Manorbier remains refreshingly low-key. Visitors can roam the castle freely on their own, soaking up the atmosphere and letting their imaginations be their guide.
And Manorbier has one more feature that, we were about to find, makes it perhaps the most distinctive anywhere. There’s an unobtrusive 19th Century cottage inside the castle walls which Naper rents it out by the week, and it’s usually booked years in advance. But the cottage had come open just as we arrived, and Naper, to our delight, told us we could take it for the night. We would have the entire castle to ourselves, she said, putting the key into my hand.
So after a stroll on the nearby beach and dinner in the village, we walked back to Manorbier in the summer twilight to reclaim, if only briefly, the long-lost Barry castle. And for the next few hours, as the shadows deepened around us, we wandered through the silent ruins alone. We sat in the huge, crumbling hall where my ancestors had lived their lives, lingered in the chapel where they had prayed, and climbed an ancient tower to look, as they would have, out over the darkening sea.
It was, as Naper had said, magical. And when the stars finally came out over the crenellated walls, we said goodnight to the ghosts we’d conjured up, took a last look around, and went into the cottage to dream.
IF YOU GO:
Pembrokeshire is easy to get to from either England or Ireland, and Tenby is a perfect base for exploring. We took a circular route, flying into London and taking the five-hour train to Tenby the next day. We returned home via Dublin, taking the ferry from Pembroke to the Irish port of Rosslare, then a train north to the capital. Makes for a great trip.
London: The Arts Club
40 Dover Street, Mayfair London W1S 4NP
020 7499 8581
It's worth going to London just to stay at The Arts Club, in the heart of Mayfair Elegant, luxurious, and incredibly hip, this iconic club has been around since 1863, and a top-to-bottom renovation several years ago has made it perhaps the best hotel in town. Drinks in the courtyard and dinner at the superb Brasserie made for an unforgettable stay.
Dublin: The Westbury Hotel
Grafton Street, Dublin, Ireland
353 1 679 1122
It was our first trip to Dublin, and the gorgeous, centrally-located Westbury Hotel, just off lively Grafton Street, was a perfect base for exploring the city.
Both elegant and friendly, with a superb new restaurant called Wilde, the Westbury left little to be desired. Highly recommended.
The historic Welsh seaside resort of Tenby offers everything from surfing to whale-watching, or just strolling its ancient cobblestone lanes. Don’t expect fancy; Tenby is a relaxed, down-to-earth place with plenty of comfortable family hotels and great seafood. Great for families.
The Park Hotel
North Cliff, Tenby
South Pembrokeshire, SA70 8AT
+44 018 34 84 2480
We loved the old-fashioned Park Hotel, with its unbeatable views of Tenby. Set on a verdant cliff about a ten-minute walk from the town center, it’s comfortable and loaded with personality. Rooms run $160 to $250 in season.
Plantagenet House Restaurant
Quay Hill, Tudor Square, Tenby SA70 7BX
+44 01834 84 23 50
Housed in the oldest building in Tenby (parts of it date back to the 10th Century) Plantagenet House was a real find, with world-class cuisine and an old-world atmosphere. The imaginative, locally-sourced entrees run $26 to $50, with most starters about $10.
3 Crackwell Street, Tenby SA70 7HA
+44 1834 84 96 36
For coffee or light lunch with a great view over North Beach, this awesomely hip cafe is the place to hang out. Try the amazing cappuccino (about $3) and Greek lunch dishes ($10 to $16).
PLACES TO SEE
Pembrokshire’s medieval castles offer a compelling look into its fascinating, turbulent and romantic past. There are about a dozen of them within an hour of Tenby worth seeing, including:
Manorbier, Tenby SA70 7SY
+44 1834 87 00 81
Manorbier Castle isn’t the biggest castle in Wales, but it may be the most captivating. Open daily from 10 am to 5 pm, March through October ($7.50 admission). Plan to spend a day there; after exploring the ruins, you can stroll down to the beach for a picnic, or hike the magnificent coastline. The 12th Century church of St. James and a neolithic stone tomb called the King’s Quoit are also within easy walking distance.
For a unique experience, stay in Manorbier’s fully-equipped cottage, which gives you the entire castle to yourself in the evening. It sleeps 12 and goes for $4,160 per week in the summer, and about half that in winter. But book early — it’s popular.
Pembroke, Pembrokeshire, SA71 4LA
+44 01646 68 15 10
The most important castle in Pembrokeshire, Pembroke Castle is open year-round (summer hours 9:30 am to 5:30 pm, adult admission £6.60) and is heavy on exhibits, special events and re-enactments of medieval life. A great place to bring kids.
Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire SA62 4AS
+44 01437 75 13 26
Open from mid-March through October (10 am to 5 pm, admission $12.50), the 12th Century Picton Castle is wonderfully well-preserved, and furnished with 18th Century antiques. It’s also home to one of the most beautiful gardens in Wales, a fine restaurant, and — awesomely — a world-class collection of antique lawnmowers.
Carew, Tenby SA70 8SL
+44 1646 65 17 82
The 13th Century Carew Castle is a stunner, with a rich history and elegant setting — it’s built on the site of an Iron Age fort — and should be on everyone’s castle list. Open March to October, admission $7.00.
NON-CASTLE-Y THINGS TO DO
If you’re castled-out (it happens), hike at least some of the 186-mile Pembrokeshire Coastal Path for some fresh air and the most stunning views in Britain. Or drop by Tenby’s harbor to find a huge range of fun, affordable boat trips, including deep sea fishing, whale watching, and outings to nearby islands. The picturesque Cistercian monastery on Caldey Island is a popular destination for day-trippers.
For a more offbeat experience, spend an afternoon with the artist Marc Treanor creating a mysterious “sand circle” on one of Pembrokeshire’s beaches. He’s great fun to hang out with, and offers private workshops tailored to your group. Contact him via his website, www.sandcircles.co.uk.
By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • April 11, 2016
The world of baroque music — with its courtly manners and faint aroma of wig powder — may have seemed, in the past, like a rather staid place. But a slew of adventurous and hard-charging new ensembles has changed all that, and few have been more exciting than the Venice Baroque Orchestra, which brought its vivid and incisive playing to Dumbarton Oaks on Sunday night.
The evening was devoted largely to Vivaldi, and the focus on a single composer — featuring fully six of his concertos — might have become a little wearing on the ears. But from the opening notes of the Concerto in G minor, RV 577, the 18-member ensemble, under the direction of Andrea Marcon, found almost limitless worlds of drama and color to explore.
Playing on period instruments, pitching a pleasantly astringent string section against the plaintive warble of oboes, the woody, dove-like cooing of recorders, and the delicate underpinning of harpsichord and theorbo, the ensemble’s Vivaldi ranged from riveting to flat-out explosive. There’s a wildness in Vivaldi’s music that makes it so exciting, a sense of barely controlled fury in his huge, cascading waves of sound. But there’s also a heart-breaking vulnerability at its core, and the Venice players balanced them to perfection.
Although the focus was on Vivaldi, the ensemble also dispatched Handel’s stately Concerto Grosso in B-flat, Op. 3, No. 3 without incident, and it turned in a wonderfully deft and playful reading of Arcangelo Corelli’s Concerto Grosso in D, Op. 6, No. 4. But the most spectacular playing of the evening came in the arrangement of two works by Vivaldi and J.S. Bach by Anna Fusek, one of the group’s recorder players. Playing a sopranino recorder known as a “flautino,” Fusek turned in a virtuosic tour de force, soulful in its central Largo movement and almost impossibly agile in the closing Giga, which seemed to approach the velocity and weightlessness of light.
By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • March 21, 2016
You’d expect a group calling itself Sandbox Percussion to take a playful approach to music — and you’d be right, as this New York-based quartet proved Sunday in a sophisticated but seriously fun afternoon of contemporary music at the Phillips Collection. Focusing on works written, more or less, last week by composers the group knows and works with, Sandbox brought out the immediacy, lack of pretension and high-end playfulness that seems — thankfully — to be revitalizing the world of contemporary music. And their jaw-dropping virtuosity made it all seem like . . . well, child’s play.
The afternoon opened with stark simplicity: Steve Reich’s 1973 “Music for Pieces of Wood.” The work is as spare as its title, played with mallets on four small boards held by the players. But as the simple pulse it opens with is gradually extended, layers of rhythmic patterns build and shift against one another, growing with a kind of clockwork into an immense, implacable and deliriously expanding cathedral of sound.
A work by Sandbox member Jonny Allen followed — the rolling, bluesy “Sonata” was captivating, with a sensuality rare in percussion music. But it was Andy Akiho’s “LIgNEouS1” — for which Ian David Rosenbaum on marimba was joined by the Amphion String Quartet — that revealed some of the afternoon’s most colorful imagination (and bravura playing). From its scherzolike third movement (which was played first; it’s a work in progress) to its elegiac second and driving, wildly intense first movement, it was clear that Akiho commands a vividly imagined sound world of exceptional depth and scope.
The four Sandbox players returned to form a circle around chimes and a bass drum for “Extremes,” an intricate work by Jason Treuting, one of the founders of the illustrious So Percussion ensemble. David Crowell’s “Music for Percussion Quartet” came next, contrasting the jangled rhythms of New York with meditative, shimmering sounds drawn from the composer’s time in Alaska.
The afternoon closed, as it began, with Reich. Sandbox played the composer’s iconic “Drumming (Part 1)” with such infectious vitality that an august audience member (94 years young, we were told) leapt to his feet for an impromptu jig in the aisle — a totally appropriate response. A roaring standing ovation brought Sandbox back for an encore, Akiho’s lilting “Karakurenai.”
By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • March 13, 2016
The Library of Congress is famous for showcasing the world’s best chamber music groups — its concert series at the Coolidge Auditorium is one of the District’s must-hear events. But the Library is also a quiet champion of new music from living composers, and on Friday night, those roles came together in a performance by the New York-based Talea Ensemble, featuring four new cutting-edge, strikingly original works, three of them commissioned by the Library itself.
The evening opened with “SynchroniCities,” by Talea co-founder Anthony Cheung. Described by the composer as a “personal sonic travelogue,” this 2012 octet proved to be a playful, quick-witted work, deftly tying the external world of sound to Cheung’s own internal cultural landscape — a probing, fascinating piece, awash in vibrant colors and as charming in the ears as in the brain.
Harder to cozy up to was “Wild Romance,” for soprano and eight players, by the inventive Greek composer George Aperghis. Jabbing and stabbing, driven by staccato bursts of sound and an anxious, unsettled energy, the work seemed to chase elusive shadows and then flee from them in terror. (Which, yes, does sound like some romances.) Soprano Jane Sheldon turned in a stunning performance of this often scorching piece, the only work of the evening not commissioned by the Library.
Julian Anderson’s “Van Gogh/Blue” is, you will not be surprised to hear, inspired by the paintings and letters of the iconic painter, and it’s as radiant and light-filled as anything Van Gogh ever painted. Tracing the course of a day in the countryside — from a rapturous evocation of early-morning light to a wild dance under a torrent of stars — it’s a vivid work, steeped in Anderson’s own distinctively meditative approach. Luminous playing from clarinetists Marianne Gythfeldt and Rane Moore — who moved gradually from the stage to the back of the hall, as if echoing the arc of the sun — added to the cosmic dimensions of this fine new work, heard in its U.S. premiere.
The music of Brian Ferneyhough — a composer inevitably linked with the love-it-or-hate-it “New Complexity” movement — can be daunting even to the most adventurous ears. And his “Contracolpi” (heard here in its world premiere) is, indeed, a rigorous and exceptionally complex new work. But it’s also jaw-dropping in its sonic imagination — a gorgeous cascade of elegant surprises, poetic to its molecules and absolutely riveting from first note to last. It’s probably unwise to declare a new work a masterpiece on only one hearing, but never mind: This is a masterpiece. Kudos to both the library and the Talea Ensemble, which played the work (and everything else on the program) with verve and immaculate virtuosity.
By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • February 1, 2016
Few — if any — string quartets have had as much impact on contemporary music as the Arditti Quartet. Through virtuosic performances of works that leave other ensembles scratching their heads, the Arditti has introduced — maybe “revealed” is a better word — some of the most important new music of the past four decades. So it was a particular treat to hear the Arditti at the Phillips Collection on Sunday, where the group explored the subtle connections between three modern French masterpieces, and suggested that “impressionism” in music may still be very much alive.
The afternoon opened with one of the most striking quartets of 20th-century modernism, Henri Dutilleux’s “Ainsi la nuit,” from 1976. Rigorously structured, integrated down to its molecules, the work unfolded with such naturalness and weightless imagination that it felt almost improvised. That, no doubt, was largely because of the Arditti players themselves, who brought not only clarity and near-infinite detail to the work (which often has the impressionistic, wildly colored feeling of a dream), but also a heady sense of spontaneity.
The Arditti has long been championing the music of Pascal Dusapin, a formidable French composer whose music is not known here nearly as well as it should be. His “Quartet V” from 2005 proved to be an instantly captivating work, opening with lurching, plucked rhythms from the cello and viola under an ethereal line from the violin, which all gathered in density before building to a furious climax. But the most astonishing part of the work was the long, ultra-quiet passage that closed it, growing ever more gripping as it slowly descended, whispering and beckoning, into an unfathomable silence.
There are few works more lush and light-filled than Maurice Ravel’s String Quartet in F, a work of pure magic from 1903. It made a fine close to the afternoon, although Arditti, to these ears, never seemed entirely at home in its ultra-polished elegance, sounding a bit unsure and even rough around the edges at times. But whatever the performance lacked in fine detail and effortless grace, it more than made up for in characterful expression, and the final “Vif et agité” movement was so full of life that it won the group an extended standing ovation.
The gifted young violinist Chad Hoopes has been rising — or maybe hurtling — toward international stardom since taking first prize in the junior division of the Yehudi Menuhin International Violin Competition in 2008. Now 21, with a string of recording and concert successes behind him, Hoopes made his Kennedy Center debut at the Terrace Theater on Thursday evening and displayed not only the jaw-dropping virtuosity that’s become almost the norm in young professionals, but also a gift for dramatic pacing and a distinctive, convincing sense of poetry.
Accompanied by the Australian pianist David Fung, Hoopes opened with Antonín Dvorák’s pleasant little Sonatina in G for Violin and Piano, Op. 100. Written in 1893 as a piece for his children and flavored with American folk melodies, the piece isn’t too technically demanding, and you won’t work up much of a sweat plumbing its emotional depths either.
But the infinitely more compelling “Five Melodies, Op. 35” by Sergei Prokofiev more than made up for it. This remarkable set of miniatures was originally written as a “song without words” for soprano, but the version for violin allows for a much richer sonic texture and complexity, without sacrificing any of the intense lyricism. Hoopes and Fung turned in a glowing — even, to these ears, a little intoxicating — reading that shimmered with exotic colors, heightened by elegant little jabs of Prokofievan violence.
Hoopes’s assured and vivid playing was deftly supported by Fung, who seemed to dance with the keyboard all evening (and whose life-of-its-own “fauxhawk” threatened at times to steal the show). That interplay continued through a smiling-slash-snarling reading of Maurice Ravel’s feral, gypsy-flavored “Tzigane” and into Cesar Franck’s much-loved Sonata in A for Violin and Piano. It was here that Hoopes’s sense of lyricism, gripping dramatic flow and intellectual depth all came together in a bravura performance that won the duo a standing ovation. The evening ended with two encores, Fritz Kreisler’s charming “Syncopation” from 1925 and Mozart’s Adagio in E, for a quiet end to an impressive Kennedy Center debut.
By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • January 18, 2016
Contemporary composers don’t have an easy time of it. If their music is performed at all, it’s usually shoe-horned in between Haydn and Dvorak, often to the alarm of all parties concerned. But the Phillips Collection has turned that clumsy model on its head by inviting a young composer — the gifted Nico Muhly — to design his own concert series, with free rein to choose everything from performers to programs. And if Sunday’s opening concert — which tied Muhly’s own music to that of Igor Stravinsky and Timo Andres — is any indication, the series will be a highlight of the Phillips’s winter season.
The concert showcased Andres himself at the piano, with the Russian American Yevgeny Kutik on violin. Opening with Muhly’s “Compare Notes,” a work premiered a few years ago at the Library of Congress by violinist Daniel Hope, Kutik immediately put his own distinctive stamp on the music. “Compare Notes” rings with a kind of direct, almost urgent authenticity. That seemed to suit Kutik perfectly; he turned in a vivid and captivating performance, and if his reading was perhaps less glowing than Hope’s, it was no less convincing — and maybe even more so.
That sense of directness and vitality set the tone for the entire concert, which may explain the program’s striking sense of cohesion. Or perhaps it was Kutik’s assured and full-bodied playing, which (supported impeccably by Andres) brought a kind of rough-and-tumble lyricism to two neo-classical works by Stravinsky, the 1932 “Duo Concertante” and the 1933 “Suite Italienne for Violin and Piano” (based on the Pulcinella ballet). Kutik, who was born in Minsk, has a clear affinity for Stravinsky’s earthy, rich chamber music, and his reading of the “Duo Concertante” was the most characterful — and maybe most satisfying — you’re ever likely to hear.
But the violinist may have reserved his most insightful playing for the premiere of “Words Fail,” a one-movement “song without words” he commissioned from Andres last year. The work, Andres explained, was an attempt to grapple with his own aversion to vocal music (words are “one thing too many” in music, he said) by exploring the voice-like qualities of the violin. From a descending lament, the work slowly gathers power through overlapping variations, becoming darker, more ambiguous and more complex before building to a soaring climax. Kutik and Andres gave a persuasive, deeply thoughtful reading to this involving new work.