S&R Foundation provides Washington Ballet with live music, affects city’s music scene

March 28, 2014

By Anne Midgette, The Washington Post

When Ryuji Ueno and Sachiko Kuno bought two historic Georgetown estates in quick succession in 2011, many wondered what the couple — somewhat reticent pharmaceutical tycoons who already had several residences to their name — were going to do with the properties.

Answer: establish the base of a classical music empire.

“The doctors,” as they are known to their staff, established their S&R Foundation — which supports rising young artists — back in 2000. The acquisition of Evermay, built in 1801 and sitting on 31/2 acres of beautifully landscaped gardens off 28th Street NW, gave the foundation a new show window — and moved it into higher gear. 

Its 12 bedrooms are used to house the visiting artists, most of them past recipients of S&R awards. Ueno and Kuno’s second new mansion, Halcyon House, overlooking the Key Bridge, is being renovated with an eye to similar use.

And the foundation’s influence is expanding, gently and helpfully, and more and more visibly, into the community. Next year, it will move to a new level when the Evermay Chamber Orchestra performs “Swan Lake” with the Washington Ballet — a company that has not regularly performed with a live orchestra since 2010.

“The daughter of our friends is in the Washington Ballet,” said Ueno, sitting on a couch in one of Evermay’s living rooms, framed against a view of green gardens that seemed miles from city life. “So we sometimes go to the Kennedy Center to see ‘The Nutcracker’ and other ballets. . . . We noticed that there is no live music recently. And a ballet without live music is very difficult, because it’s a kind of communication between the musicians and the dancers. So we start thinking about if we can take musicians into the orchestra pit.”

When private citizens, backed by extensive funding, decide that they want to make a mark on the arts, things can move very quickly indeed. More common in the world of large-scale arts philanthropy are the large-scale gifts: David M. Rubenstein donating the Kennedy Center Organ; Paul G. Stern helping support WPAS’s presentation of the Israel Philharmonic this weekend. It’s less common for private, low-profile citizens — and the doctors were quite low-profile before their $33 million purchases landed them in the city’s gossip columns — to start their own organizations and then integrate themselves into the community.

This wasn’t part of the doctors’ original plan. The S&R Foundation isn’t even exclusively devoted to musicians; it also gives grants to scientists. However, musicians have so far represented some 70 percent of the awardees, according to Ueno, the more musical member of the couple.

“We decided to keep in contact with all the artists,” he said. “Since we have this venue of Evermay just recently, please come back to Evermay to play again.” Thus the concert series was born, and, this coming June, a new chamber music series with a larger ensemble of soloists — including the pianists Ryo Yanagi­tani and Yu Kosuge, the violinist Tamaki Kawakubo (who serves as the ensemble’s artistic director) and the cellist Claudio Bohorquez — that will, Ueno says, form the base of the chamber orchestra that will accompany the Washington Ballet.

“We are thinking of adding local artists to the core members,” he said, “to make, not a full full orchestra, but a modest-sized orchestra to be in the orchestra pit. So it’s a combination of our award winners and local artists here. If the core members are really good — and many of them are from the Berlin Philharmonic, and next year we invite some from the Saito Kinen Orchestra as well . . . hopefully local players are also enjoying playing with world-class.”

There is no question that the Washington Ballet would welcome the return of live music, which hitherto has been possible only through special donations, like one in 2011 from Adrienne Arsht. Neither Ueno nor the ballet itself was willing to comment on how far the Washington Ballet will be financially involved in this new partnership. Ueno was clear that he wanted it to be a true partnership; “otherwise, if our money goes away, they cannot continue.”

The Washington Ballet’s Septime Weber was evasive. “There has always been a great inter­dependence between dance and music,” he said in a statement issued through his media representative. “Tchaikovsky’s majestic score for ‘Swan Lake’ is a great way to launch the relationship between The Washington Ballet and Evermay Chamber Orchestra.”

Ueno added, “We are talking about how to take care of live music for other performances.”

The Washington Ballet is not the only local organization to which the S&R Foundation (named for the first initials of the doctors) is establishing ties — and not only because Kuno has served or is serving on the boards of several local institutions, including the Washington National Opera and the National Cherry Blossom Festival. Having come to the Washington area in 1996 because they wanted to establish an American foothold close to the Food and Drug Administration and other scientific centers key to their various patents and pharmaceutical developments, the doctors developed a relationship with the Washington Conservatory when, looking for a way to support the soprano Maki Mori, they underwrote her residency with the conservatory. That was before they founded the S&R Foundation.

Mori “was wonderful, and gave a concert each year and master classes,” said Kathy Judd, the school’s executive and artistic director. She added that Ueno and Kuno later bought the school virtual acoustic rooms and purchased a house that the school needed to sell when, because of zoning restrictions, it could not be used as additional teaching space. “I am beyond grateful for their support,” Judd said, “and admire what seems to be a real community spirit, along with their obvious generosity for all the arts.”

The former Washington Conservatory property, like many of the doctors’ houses — they own several others, though they sold a couple in the wake of their Evermay purchase — is used in part to house visitors, including, currently, the pianist Ryo Yanagitani, Evermay’s artist in residence, whose contract recently was extended for another year. “I am the very first artist in residence,” Yanagitani says, “so it has been put upon me to establish a larger rapport with a lot of different organizations around D.C., so that we have this artistic connection and a larger web of connections that we can always collaborate with later on.” New connections include Strathmore, which will host one of the concerts at the new chamber music festival in June. (The Kennedy Center has been another frequent partner.)

The doctors are certainly not alone in going out and starting their own show. Pro Musica Hebraica, founded by the political commentator Charles Krauthammer and his wife, Robyn, is another example of an institution founded by two private citizens without a lot of background in the music field that has established itself on the Washington landscape, doing things that other organizations can’t. What makes Kuno and Ueno stand apart is the scale of their investment, and the potential effect that it could have on a field currently desperate for money.

Doing things in a different way than they’ve usually been done can be a boon, when it means setting up a place where young artists can come together and exchange music and ideas. It can be a challenge, when it means creating a small orchestra that probably needs to conform to the dictates of the musicians’ union. But as the doctors are approaching it, it could be a step toward the future of the field — not only because they support young artists, but also because of the way they’re going about it.