Maybe it’s because I’m a born-and-bred East Coaster from a long line of born-and-bred East Coasters who rarely, if ever, ventured west of New Jersey.
I guess that’s why for me, the West Coast feels like the far edge of the world — a rugged frontier where the sun sets over the unimaginable vastness of the Pacific, where people wind down at night while most of the world is firmly into the next day.
Nowhere is this sensation more palpable than in Seattle, a quintessentially western city where my East Coast notions are turned upside-down. In the middle of winter there, it can feel like May — and vice versa. The best-known cultural institution is housed in a shimmering purple edifice named for Jimi Hendrix. And unseen mountains come into view only when the sun finally comes out.
Late-millennial rock is the soundtrack of Seattle from the moment you get off the plane at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. That’s where a new, multimedia exhibition, “Experience the City of Music,” immerses visitors in the sound of local artists: Eddie Vedder, the Wilson sisters, Quincy Jones, and yes, Jimi Hendrix. As you stroll past the gates, screens and displays show the musicians in action.
That’s just a prelude, so to speak, to Seattle’s temple of rock-and-roll worship: the Experience Music Project, conceived by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Back when it opened in 2000 (which seems like eons ago!), EMP was a pioneer in the kind of interactive media that today is standard museum fare. So alongside exhibitions of Rolling Stones costumes and Hendrix manuscripts are a Sound Lab where visitors play with cool sound effects, and a room that simulates the rock star star’s experience in front of a virtual audience.
As did the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, this arresting Gehry building instantly became a defining feature of the local landscape. Its swooping metalic curves make up part of the Seattle Center. Visitors to the EMP this winter can celebrate Hendrix’s 70th birthday (imagine that!) with a major retrospective that includes taped interviews and hand-written lyrics, while another iconic Seattle act gets the spotlight in “Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses,” on view through April.
You could say that the Seattle Center’s newest attraction is a different kind of nirvana — this one for fans of Tacoma-born glass sculptor Dale Chihuly, whose art is particularly well known in Israel, where he has worked extensively.
Since it opened last May, the Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibition — the most comprehensive collection of the artist’s work — has quickly become one of the West Coast’s new blockbuster sights. Room after room of shimmering, vibrantly colored glass take the viewer into a brittle alternate universe that’s part Dr. Seuss, part Louis Comfort Tiffany. There’s a Sealife Room, a simulated underwater world of fish and coral; an outdoor sculpture garden that explodes with blue forms; and a 40-foot Glass House (please, no stones).
It’s after wandering around Gehry’s purple vision and Chihuly’s sun-glazed greenhouse that you realize how outdoorsy even Seattle’s museums are — a telling contrast from East Coast institutions, where the exterior world is usually extraneous.
Even with world-class opera and art, Seattle, like the EMP, is perhaps best viewed from outside: a stroll along the salt-misty waterfront, say, or a cruise through Puget Sound for a view toward the harbor and snow-capped mountains. After all, few U.S. cities offer a milder midwinter. It’s damp, to be sure, but with afternoons hovering around 50 degrees, Seattle in January is eminently walkable.
Seattle also boasts a Jewish cultural life unequaled in the Pacific Northwest, one distinguished by its focus on social action and community outreach. The Stroum Jewish Community Center, known locally as the J, has campuses at Temple Beth Am in the city and on Mercer Island and sponsors a number of events — such as the Purim Carnival and a lecture series – that attract a broad swath of Seattleites.
The largest Jewish cultural event in the Pacific Northwest is the Seattle Jewish Film Festival. Coming up in early March, the Festival is a program of the American Jewish Committee’s Seattle regional office; with a broad social mission, the lineup of international films and artist talks attracted more than 8,000 people last year.
Seattle is also home to the only non-synagogue-affiliated Jewish choir between Vancouver and San Francisco. That would be the Seattle Jewish Chorale, a group launched five years ago whose Chanukah concerts were a highlight of the recent holiday season. The Chorale’s renditions of Yiddish, Hebrew and Ladino songs are a new addition to interfaith community events — and proof that long after Hendrix and Cobain, the Seattle music scene is more diverse than ever.