The western highlands of Virginia feel remote, even from here in the Shenandoah Valley. It is fifty-five miles from my desk to Warm Springs in Bath County, and a high ridge of the Alleghenies comes between. Before the Civil War, when well-to-do southerners and a few northerners started coming here to take the waters, the place was more remote yet, and people who traveled by horse and stagecoach stayed for weeks at a time. Eventually, a grand hotel, The Homestead (these days an Omni “resort and spa,” but still grand), appeared in nearby Hot Springs, and wealthy outlanders’ cottages with names like The Pillars, Grammercy Farm, and Roseloe dotted the woods. Into the 1960s, Pullmans from the Northeast conveyed posh patrons in style.
With money can come culture, or the pretense to it. Bath County in the twentieth century escaped the pretense, and in the twenty-first carries on with a quiet example of high culture thriving in a faraway place. Garth Newel (Welsh for “new home”) began as the residence of the painter William Sergeant Kendall (1869–1938) and his second wife, Christine Herter Kendall (1890–1981), who founded the Garth Newel Music Center in 1973. Kendall, whose work is held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian, was an accomplished society portraitist. His own favorite subjects, however, were his first wife Margaret Stickney and their three daughters, which prompted critics to dub him a “classical intimist.” Kendall ferried between the haute monde of Warm Springs and Newport, commanding upwards of four thousand dollars for a portrait, and at the peak of his career in 1913 he became dean of Yale’s School of Fine Arts. In New Haven, he developed a friendship with the muralist and craftsman Albert Herter, who was the scion of the Herter Brothers firm (Gustav and Christian), the premier interior designer and furniture maker for the ultra-wealthy of the Gilded Age. Albert’s fourteen-year-old niece, Christine, became Kendall’s art student and later, in 1922 after his divorce from Margaret, his second wife. In addition to their love of painting, the new couple were avid equestrians and amateur violinists. Kendall knew Bath County well, but it was Christine who brought to the marriage a forty-thousand-dollar cash wedding gift from her mother that enabled them to purchase the 114 acres on the western side of Warm Springs Mountain, where they built Garth Newel in 1924.
Kendall died in a riding accident in 1938, but Christine would live on at Garth Newel for a total of fifty-nine years as a painter, horsewoman, musician, and supporter of all good things in Warm Springs. Garth Newel was dear to maintain however, and when the Girl Scouts whom she hoped would rescue it could not, she turned to chamber music. With Luca and Arlene DiCecco, the founders of a little-known string quartet in Charlotte, Christine established the Garth Newel Music Center in 1973, which at first held concerts in the none-too-great great hall of the manor house, later in the ampler horse barn remodeled as Herter Hall. The personnel has changed over the years, but since the start Garth Newel has never missed a season and today churns out some fifty concerts a year.
Success for a classical music ensemble requires less virtuosic brilliance than competence and consistency in performance, engaging programming, and marketing. Not that long ago, most groups seemed to make their home in some metropolis or other, but since the 1960s the provinces have blossomed with manifestations of high culture: symphony orchestras in mid-size cities and even small towns, college ensembles and choirs, repertory theaters, art museums, and sometimes hybrids. Such is Garth Newel. Circumstance, in this case a breathtakingly beautiful but remote setting, is mother to invention, and Garth Newel has found a frame to uphold itself.
In the performance department, Garth Newel’s own resident quartet does most of the heavy lifting, supplemented by invited artists. Programming, some of it conceptual and carefully tied to outside events and anniversaries, balances the tried-and-true classics of (this year) Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Haydn, the Schumanns, Debussy, Dvořák, Ravel, Fauré, with lesser but worthy lights: Louise Héritte-Viardot, Thea Musgrave, Harold Meltzer, Laurie San Martin. To performance and programming must also be added, as the fancy chefs say, presentation, which amounts to marketing and which fills out the Garth Newel operation.
The way an evening at Garth Newel typically works is this: if you’re not local, then you take a room in the manor house built by the Kendalls in the 1920s or an inn in the village; cocktails begin at 6:00 in Herter Hall, the old barn; a concert follows promptly at 6:30 and consists of precisely one hour of music with some talk by musicians but no intermission, and you may bring your martini; staff then re-set the hall with round tables; and dinner commences by 8:00. The bar stays open. Dinner in four courses with good wine generously poured runs to 9:30 or so. It is not catered in and heated up but cooked in-house by Garth Newel’s resident chef and cheerfully served. The musicians and executive director dine too and mingle with the guests. Dress might be considered “country smart,” peppered with some bowties, suede shoes, and snazzy frocks.
It is a conceit of cosmopolitans that the farther one ventures from urban centers into the still-vast rural world, the thinner the ground becomes on which high culture stands, allowing anomalies like the profusion of summer music festivals marketed to gentry hipsters. An essential part of Garth Newel’s audience is also out-of-area, but hardly all of it. People who know what art is live, work, and raise families in these remote environs quite contentedly, thank you very much. Despite unfashionable zip codes, they are as cognizant as anyone of Matthew Arnold’s famous definition of high culture: simply the best that has been thought and said in the world. To which I would add: performed, composed—and, yes, maybe even cooked. Such a culture, it is worth remembering, is elitist but also egalitarian, as in open to anyone of any social standing who, as Arnold put it, desires and has the bent for it. “Best” need not however be monochrome, as the Garth Newel hybrid illustrates, with skillfully programmed, solidly performed chamber music and authentic pleasures of the table amid the legacy air of the old arts colony.
I am neither music critic nor restaurant reviewer and so cannot say with authority whether Garth Newel’s performance is “the best,” whether its programming is “the best,” whether its cuisine is “the best.” (Certainly, they are all very good.) But as a plain customer of the arts, I can say that an evening spent there in good company is “the best,” is richly cultured, and is worth the trek over Goshen Pass.