- The Washington Times - Monday, December 6, 1999

The 42nd National Symphony Ball began with an engraved invitation ($375 minimum per ticket) and ended with well-fed guests waiting patiently for valet-parked cars, their arms full of fresh flowers and woven gift-bag favors tagged “Colombian Coffee Federation.”

The embassy of Colombia, this year’s host of Friday’s white-tie fete, was only the second South American country in 10 years to get the nod. Ambassador Luis Alberto Moreno and his wife, Gabriela Febres-Cordero de Moreno, were determined to make as colorful a showing as possible. Think “magical realism” the folk tradition made famous by author Gabriel Garcia Marquez with fabulous Latin music amid a setting of 20,000 roses, and the country’s infamous drug cartels are banished from the mind.

If not exactly magic, it took a great feat of imagination under the direction of Colombian-born, New York-based designer Juan Montoya to turn the cavernous National Building Museum into a combination dance, dining and concert hall. Importing native crafts, musicians and dancers did the trick.

Dinner tables were covered with striped hammocks from Cartagena and centered with enormous bowls of pastel roses. (Colombia is one of the largest suppliers of roses to the United States.) Napkin holders doubled as bracelets. Juan Valdez, television’s signature coffee man, autographed postcards reading, “Grab life by the beans.” It was the right slogan for an evening that raised a record $400,000 for NSO outreach programs and had more than 1,100 guests shaking and swaying to the rollicking rhythms of the Miami-based El Equipo Orchestra.

Mambo, merengue, salsa, samba, cumbia the latter a Colombian specialty done with a lot of hip movement while partners face one another without touching were specialties of the night. Only actor Patrick Stewart, a guest of Bill and Dorothy McSweeny, didn’t seem an eager terpsichorean. He was just happy enough to have a break from filming in Los Angeles. Most of Washington’s “movers and shakers” present lived up to the name.

“I don’t know what it is; I just do it,” said Vernon Jordan, whose dance floor moves with wife Ann drew as many appreciative stares as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and husband John’s soulful, skillful, classy routine across the entire length of the dance floor.

Almost lost in the fun were the touching sounds of 10 young singers and accordion players who hail from the most violence-plagued area of Colombia. Missing from the action was the National Symphony Orchestra’s Leonard Slatkin, on a pre-scheduled conducting date in Europe. Singer-wife Linda Hohenfeld Slatkin did honors instead, greeting such high-profile guests as Kenneth Starr (“delighted to be able to resume a normal life”), Princess Marianne Bernadotte (the king of Sweden’s aunt), Secretary of Education Richard Riley, World Bank chief James Wolfensohn, Veterans Affairs Secretary Togo West Jr., White House social secretary Capricia Marshall, Bitsey Folger, Bill and Lynda Webster and about a dozen ambassadors, including those of France, Italy, Morocco, Venezuela, Mexico and the Netherlands.

Ball organizers Maggie and David Cole attracted a large portion of the high-profile, high-tech business community, including about 100 guests from America Online, there at Mr. Cole’s behest. (He is a retired executive of that company.)

“I know you all have the attention spans of ferrets, but you answered our call,” Mr. Cole joked from the stage as his friends and former cohorts looked on from the primo “Maestro” and “Symphonic Circle” tables that cost $10,000 and $25,000 a pop.

The high-tech crowd certainly can afford it, as investment mogul and Washington Capitals co-owner Jonathan Ledecky pointed out from one of his two tables before the dancing heated up. Mr. Ledecky may have been a bit off in his calculation that “12,000 millionaires” work at America Online these days (AOL co-founder Jim Kimsey said later that the number was probably closer to 2,000) but his observation about the “rejuvenating” effect new technology money was having on the symphony and other local cultural organizations was right on target.

So was Mr. Kimsey’s comment that many of the successful entrepreneurs were wise enough to figure out that such relationships could be mutually beneficial.

“They’re young and have been caught up building their companies,” he said, “but now they’re beginning to realize there’s more to life than bits and bytes.”

But business still comes first and foremost for many of the techies, even during an evening on the town. Lethal pina coladas and sensual music may have set the mood but didn’t interrupt at least one young senorita’s deft dealings on a cell phone as less preoccupied guests slithered by on the dance floor.

Then it was on to sea bass and crab in banana leaves, mixed grill of pheasant, beef and sausage, corn souffle and a sizzling coconut flan dessert.

Oh, yes, there was at least one magnificent emerald present: a $7,000 uncut jewel pendant worn by a model in an Angel Sanchez dress, to be awarded as a door prize.

Those who stayed on into the wee hours agreed it was the best NSO ball in years. The “drug” was the music. No artificial stimulus was required.

It was real and magical at the same time.

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