2013 summer arts preview: The D.C. arts scene standouts you don’t want to miss
Everyone comes to Washington in the summer.
It is a literal hot spot, a sweltering, swampy sweat-fest of tourists, interns and, this year, cicadas! Interns can be rowdy, even the loveliest tourists get annoying, and cicadas are disgusting. But there’s still plenty to be excited about during this most wonderful time of the year, starting with a vibrant arts scene curated within this preview by your friendly neighborhood arts critics.
Sarah Kaufman takes you to the Kennedy Center’s “Ballet Across America” series; she’s throwing down the gauntlet, deeming the production the finest sample of contemporary ballet in the nation. Anne Midgette has your guide to classical music events in road-tripping-distance from the District. Philip Kennicott reviews a book on civic art that’ll make you do a double-take of the monuments you’ve been walking by (or at least catching glimpses of during those scene changes on “Scandal”) for years. Ann Hornaday and Peter Marks give their top picks for film and theater, respectively, and Chris Richards decrees that this is the time for us all to be real sunshine patriots and appreciate the art outdoors.
Come on in! The water’s fine, and the season is just getting started.
The politics and polemics of ‘Civic Art’
A history of a government agency might sound like bibliographic Nembutal, but not Thomas Luebke’s “Civic Art,” which makes surprisingly great summer reading. This richly illustrated, 636-page history of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, the government body founded in 1910 that has design oversight for much of what is built in the District, will reconnect you with the city, make you look at the built environment with new eyes, and let you wander the streets, parks and ceremonial byways of the nation’s capital alert to what might have been, what might be much worse, and the convoluted process that led to the city we know today. It will show you how much better the Korean War Veterans Memorial might have been, how ugly the Mall once was, how close we came to losing now-treasured city landmarks such as the Old Post Office building, and much more than any ordinary tour guide will bother to tell you about this beautiful and frustrating city.
Luebke’s book immediately joins the shortlist of essential texts about Washington design and architecture, including Martin Moeller’s handy American Institute of Architects guide (updated and reissued last year) and Kirk Savage’s invaluable 2011 “Monument Wars,” which takes a focused and philosophical look at some of the same material covered in “Civic Art.” Luebke, who serves as secretary of the Commission of Fine Arts (the administrative head), massaged the book into very readable form from years of writing and research by CFA staffers.
The CFA is deeply intertwined with politics and aesthetics, and its meetings are the site of much haggling and dispute. Its decisions have fundamentally shaped the image of the city, and thus reflect profound debates about the self-image of America. Over the past century, it has helped guide the creation of the “white” or “marble” city, with its classical references and pretensions to imperial grandeur. It has played a major role — not always positive — in fundamental issues of preservation and redevelopment. It is implicated in everything that is both beautiful and regrettable about the look of the nation’s capital.
Although it began as an advisory body, in 1986 it was given approval authority over projects covered by the Commemorative Works Act, which governs the design and approval process for new memorials and monuments. Members of the commission have also jousted with senators, presidents and other power brokers, and those encounters could turn salty. The Reagan administration, according to one essay in the volume, tried to liquidate it in 1981, and Harry S. Truman tussled with it when he proposed adding a balcony to the South Portico of the White House. The commission tried and failed to dissuade Truman from this monstrous act of architectural barbarity, and to this day the nation is stuck with the ridiculous site of a classical portico bisected at its midsection with a horizontal balcony. Go and look at it, and try to erase the intrusion with your imagination. It would look much, much better without that balcony.
The chairman of the CFA has often wielded extraordinary power, both in public hearings and behind the scenes. No figure emerges as a more fascinating leader than J. Carter Brown, who served as chairman for more than 30 years, until his death in 2002. He helped guide the process that led to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Navy Memorial and the National World War II Memorial, as well as the redevelopment of Pennsylvania Avenue, among other projects. By temperament he was a mandarin, but his legacy proved a perfect study in all the postmodern contradictions. He argued strenuously, and unsuccessfully, for the Frank Gehry-designed addition to the Corcoran, but he also promoted the brutally retrograde World War II Memorial.
On Brown’s watch, the city saw the demolition of the historic Rhodes Tavern, which once stood at 15th and F Streets NW. Although it was one of the oldest buildings in the city, and the site of many historic meetings and events, it was torn down in 1984 to make way for one of Washington’s innumerable generic development projects. Brown felt saving the building, which was only a few floors high, would create “a kind of gaping into the smile of 15th Street.” Rather, it would have preserved architectural heritage and diversity, and its loss did no credit to Brown’s often highhanded control of the oversight process.
The illustrations may be the best part of the book, especially for readers more interested in local design history than the public process of oversight. A section drawing of the underground space built near the Smithsonian Castle, including the Sackler and National Museum of African Art, gives one a clear understanding of what never makes sense when you’re in these spaces — their size, flow and interrelationship. A model of Douglas Cardinal’s original design for the National Museum of the American Indian proves how much better and elegant the original plan was, compared with the rather heavy and overbearing structure that got built. A sketch from 1969 shows the tower of the Old Post Office building — now soon to become a Trump hotel — as the only remaining piece of the structure, which would have been demolished as part of a misguided effort to finish the Federal Triangle in a unified style.
Hearings of the CFA are open to the public, and a small but devoted public always attends. This book reveals what they see and hear on a regular basis, the design drawings, the back-and-forth of the commissioners as they debate the details of those plans, and the many projects that change radically from the beginning to end of the process. It may feel as if Washington is a city set down before us by remote and absolute powers, but much of what happens is now very much in the hands of ordinary citizens. If they care enough to get involved.
Process isn’t always pretty, but it is vital, and the results in our built environment are all but permanent. Unlike, say, the performing arts, where creativity happens more spontaneously . . .
‘Ballet Across America’ a fine sampling of contemporary dance
. . .Think of it as the ballet version of mezze, which feels just right for summer. No finer samplingof contemporary ballet around the country exists than the Kennedy Center’s “Ballet Across America” series, in which nine regional ballet companies perform one work apiece. The series, which bundles these works into three programs repeated over a week, debuted in 2008. Its third installment runs Tuesday through next Sunday at the Opera House.
The popular series is so unusual — nine troupes, all in one place — that its audience expands well beyond local ballet followers. Directors of companies that hope to be invited to future installments also attend, to see whom they have to measure up against.
Like small-plate fare, these evenings tend toward the light and pungent. At first glance, it may look like surprises are in short supply this year. Naturally, you’ve got your Balanchine standards. Two companies take this route — Boston Ballet, with “Symphony in Three Movements,” and Pennsylvania Ballet, with “The Four Temperaments.”
James Kudelka is another familiar name; Oregon Ballet Theatre offers his “Almost Mozart,” a work the Canadian choreographer, known for his merging of ballet and modern dance, made on its dancers. In-house talent is a source of new work for many troupes, and we’ll see examples from North Carolina Dance Theatre, offering “Rhapsodic Dances” by its associate artistic director, Sasha Janes, and from Ballet Austin, performing “Hush,” by Artistic Director Stephen Mills. Incidentally, “Hush” and Washington Ballet’s offering, Edwaard Liang’s “Wunderland,” underscore the evergreen appeal of Philip Glass’s music. Both Mills and Liang set their steps to his insistent, mysterious rising tides.
The big news comes from the three companies making their Kennedy Center debuts: Richmond Ballet, Sarasota Ballet and, after a nine-year, debt-induced hiatus and thorough reorganization, Dance Theatre of Harlem.
Dance Theatre of Harlem has a new director: Virginia Johnson, its Washington-born and -trained former leading ballerina. It has a new look: 18 dancers, down from 44 in the past. Not all are black. Johnson points out that her company was never exclusively African American.
“I was looking for exciting classical dancers of color, but I was surprised at how few dancers of color attended the audition, and the level of them,” Johnson says. “I was looking for overnight stars. But the truth is that you make dancers.
“That’s what we’re doing here, we’re making dancers.” She laughs, underscoring the extent of her challenge, and the warmth of spirit that bodes well for her success.
On Friday and next Sunday, the troupe will perform a signature piece from the days when the Dance Theatre of Harlem was led by Arthur Mitchell, who founded the predominantly black ballet company in 1969 as a response to the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. If you’re a longtime ballet-goer, you may remember this work, an energetic ballet/go-go hybrid created by Robert Garland in 1999 for the troupe’s 30th anniversary. It’s called “Return.” The name, and the piece, fit on several levels.
“It epitomizes what Dance Theatre of Harlem does best,” Johnson says. “It’s ballet, it’s on pointe, and it uses the music of Aretha Franklin and James Brown.”
This is the way forward for the company, she adds. “We’ll be an eclectic company. We’ll perform classical and neoclassical works, and contemporary pieces that Dance Theatre of Harlem is uniquely able to do, ones that bring forward African American culture as American culture. ‘Return’ is of that type.”
With its existence dependent on touring, “return” is also the company’s mantra, and a promise to Washington audiences. If you miss it at the Kennedy Center, from Oct. 17-19, you’ll find it at Sidney Harman Hall, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society.
Sarasota Ballet has also experienced something of a rebirth, since British-born director Iain Webb took over in 2007 and reinvigorated the repertoire with ballets from such 20th-century British artists as Antony Tudor, Ninette de Valois, Kenneth MacMillan and Frederick Ashton. The company caught the Kennedy Center’s attention when it joined with the Suzanne Farrell Ballet last fall for her production of Balanchine’s “Diamonds.” On Thursday and Saturday, the Sarasota Ballet will perform Ashton’s “Les Patineurs,” a brilliantly constructed and deceptively difficult confection from 1937 that reimagines the stage as a frozen pond and the dancers as a Victorian-era skating party.
Webb worked with Ashton while at the Royal Ballet School and as a member of the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet. His works, Webb says, are “my security blanket. His ballets are just incredible: Not only do they show the company off well but there’s a great audience appeal. And it’s through Sir Fred that people have started taking note of the company.”
With its lighthearted wit and illusions of gliding, its falling snow and fur-trimmed costumes — not to mention its rousing German drinking tunes by Giacomo Meyerbeer — “Les Patineurs” could prove to be the highlight of the “Ballet Across America” series.
“You’ve got to really swoop,” Webb says of the fluid style of the ballet. “You have to sweep and flow and drop the body so your hands are almost touching the floor. The bending of the body and the use of the neckline — it’s all so beautiful.”
If reinvention is the story in some parts of the ballet world, Richmond Ballet has a different tale to tell. Not only is its artistic director, Stoner Winslett, one of the nation’s few female leaders of a ballet company, but she also boasts impressive longevity.
“As far as we know, I have the longest tenure right now as a founding director of a ballet company,” she says, looking back on a 33-year career.
Does this make a difference in the dancing? “You’ll feel it,” Winslett insists, noting the continuity she has been able to build among the dancers. “Most stay for their whole career; most came through a training program of the Richmond Ballet.”
Winslett is an especially active funder of new works, pointing to about 50 ballets she has commissioned over the years. “It’s important to give artists of this time a chance to speak,” she says. “I’d like to think that we’re one of the best places to produce a new ballet in the entire world.”
On Tuesday and Wednesday, Richmond Ballet will perform one of its recent commissions, “Ershter Vals,” created in 2010 by the Chinese-born choreographer Ma Cong. The music is by the Italian klezmer group Klez Roym, based on Jewish Holocaust-era poems. What the ballet conveys, Winslett says, is that “even in the darkest of times, the human spirit punches through and there is light.”
Spirit and light, a cooling snowfall, fun and funky music — all good things for a summer festival. But if enjoying the arts outdoors is what you’re after . . .
Ballet Across America, performances at the Kennedy Center Opera House, Tuesday-Sunday. Program A: Richmond Ballet, Oregon Ballet Theatre and Boston Ballet, 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday and Wednesday. Program B: Sarasota Ballet, Washington Ballet and Pennsylvania Ballet, 7:30 p.m. on Thursday=; 1:30 and 7:30 p.m on Saturday. Program C: North Carolina Dance Theatre, Ballet Austin and Dance Theatre of Harlem, 7:30 p.m. on Fridayand 1:30 p.m. next Sunday. Tickets $15-$75. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.
In the air: Summer music at its best
. . .No disrespect to Dolly Parton’s backup singers, but when the sequin-spangled doyenne of country music graced the stage at Wolf Trap two summers ago, her finest accompaniment came from the bugs in the surrounding tree line.
Wolf Trap’s resident insect choir reminded us that there was an entire world out there — a world where people work 9 to 5 and Jolene is out running around with Dolly’s man. More importantly, it provided a gentle, ear-pricking drone that invited us to listen more closely.
That’s what makes concerts without ceilings feel so sensual. The melodies come with bugs and breezes and distant thunderclaps. When Washington’s at its summer swampiest, we might think we can hear the humidity itself. Our senses are heightened. Our listening becomes more primal. And our music sounds richer.
It’s another reason to resent the not-so-great indoors, as well the rise of earbud culture. While the increased portability of recorded music is a wondrous thing, it’s a shame that so many of our musical experiences involve unthinkingly plugging our favorite tunes into our skulls. It’s like bringing a magnifying glass to a “Fast and Furious” movie.
This summer, Wolf Trap’s Filene Center might be the area’s finest spot to sit back and listen to pop music carve its way through open air. The venue has made a smart and necessary pivot this season, booking acts that, compared with the schedules of summers past, span more genres and generations.
It isn’t a coincidence. Wolf Trap’s new president and chief executive, Arvind Manocha, enjoyed great success overseeing nearly a decade of summer concert seasons at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, and he appears to be bringing his ambition to Vienna.
The venue’s most intriguing pairing of the season comes on June 20, when indie-rock royal Cat Power opens for MTV survivor Billy Idol. Robert Plant, whose ballads from Led Zeppelin to today have always evoked the pastoral, headlines on July 22. And the schedule’s biggest surprise comes deep in the summer when Kesha brings her glittery, pixelated pop hits to the Wolf Trap stage on Aug. 12.
Merriweather Post Pavilion remains reliable this year, offering a few acts that might play quietly enough for fans to hear leaves rustling in the distance. Two U.K. bands will import fragile indie-rock ballads — the xx headline on June 16, and Belle and Sebastian appear on July 12 — while country legend Alan Jackson will page through his sprawling songbook on Sept. 8.
For something louder, starrier and more crowded, there’s the Virgin FreeFest. Neither the date or the bill has been announced, but the festival will return to Merriweather toward the end of the summer, according to the festival’s promoters, who alley-ooped the scoop to the student newspaper at Bethesda’s Walt Whitman High School.
Jiffy Lube Live in Bristow isn’t the area’s leafiest outdoor venue, but it is the area’s largest. Accordingly, it will welcome the return of Black Sabbath on Aug. 2 — a long-awaited heavy metal reunion that seems too big to fail. The summer’s biggest country tours are also scheduled to stop at the Lube, the best of which features Miranda Lambert and Dierks Bentley on July 28.
And if you live in the District and don’t have a convenient way to trek out to these verdant suburban venues, sequestration may have ruined your summer. Federal budget cuts have put the summer concert series at Carter Barron and Anacostia’s Fort Dupont Park in peril, threatening to deliver a huge moral blow to surrounding neighborhoods.
Parks make music sound richer, but music makes parks sound richer, too.
But for those who have the ability to hit the road . . .
Classical music festivals: road trips off the grid
. . .It is a truth common to summer music festivals that cellphone and GPS signals tend to cut out at just the places you get lost. Ask anyone who’s gone to the Castleton Festival, conductor Lorin Maazel’s festival on a glorious spread of green land in Rappahannock County, Va. You turn off Route 211 and onto winding roads through the countryside, with small houses nestled by the road and glimpses of big farmhouses set farther back, behind the stately white barriers of horse-country fencing. It’s the perfect place for an international conductor to get away from it all. Unfortunately, Maazel doesn’t want to get away from it all anymore; he wants his audience to come to him, and finding him is a challenge. Temporary paper signs at the turns offer welcome reassurance that you are, indeed, on the right track. But then you reach a turn without a sign, and your phone blinks “no signal,” and, this being the 21st century, you no longer have a paper map.
You learn, eventually. You print out the directions, or e-mail them to yourself, before you go. But not everyone has a second chance. When I reviewed Castleton last summer, I got a striking amount of mail from readers who had tried to find the festival themselves and eventually given up and gone out to dinner instead.
Summer festivals are like summer reading: taking you off the usual paths onto unexpected byways, giving you a chance to lose yourself in the narrative of a place. The location is part of the experience, be it the lush greenery of Tanglewood in the Berkshires or the Frank Gehry-designed outdoor pavilion at Grant Park in the heart of Chicago. You travel to get somewhere, with the understanding that you are submitting to forces beyond your control. You will be in a different place; you and the musicians have traveled to get there; you are brought together in a kind of shipboard romance. Assuming, that is, that you haven’t lost the directions.
The getaway: Garth Newel
It sounds like a person, but “Garth Newel” means “new home” in Welsh. It isn’t new anymore, but more than 35 years after its founding as a music festival, and some nine decades since the first manor house was built on the site as a private home in rural Bath County, Va., about a four-hour drive from Washington, it remains a well-kept secret.
Its first owners certainly wanted to get away from it all. They were the painter William Sergeant Kendall, a successful early 20th-century artist whose oeuvre ran to voluptuous nudes in unlikely landscapes and Charles Dodgson-esque little girls, and his wife, Christine Herter, also a talented painter who had a solo gallery show in New York. Herter was Kendall’s student at Yale, where he was dean of the school of fine arts, and he made waves when, in 1922, he abruptly resigned his post, divorced his wife and married Herter, 22 years his junior. (The scandal was reported, demurely, in the New York Times.) Garth Newel was designed and built by Herter, not Kendall; and the couple lived there happily until Kendall’s death in 1938, after which Herter soldiered on, continued painting and wrote a couple of books, one of which, “Defense of Art,” is still in print. On the strength of these books, the architect Buckminster Fuller sought out their author and started a friendship that led, in the 1950s, to the construction of a second, smaller home on the property designed by Fuller’s associate James Fitzgibbons.
Today, the manor house is open to overnight guests. The former riding ring was converted (under Herter’s supervision) into a concert hall where, after the show, a formal dinner is served to the audience and musicians. And the Garth Newel Music Center is celebrating its 40th anniversary this summer with what has evolved into its regular program of chamber concerts on Saturdays and Sundays from the end of June until the first of September.
The program includes some familiar names, including the Daedalus and Borromeo string quartets, and some thematic concerts of interest, such as the Third Coast Percussion Ensemble’s program entitled “Music and Architecture” (Aug. 24). And the $75 price tag for a concert ticket and dinner is lower than some single tickets at the Kennedy Center; even when you add in the $110 cost for overnight accommodation in the manor house, it seems something of a bargain.
Garth Newel Music Center, 403 Garth Newel Lane, Warm Springs, Va., 540-839-5018 www.garthnewel.org. “Our physical address is NOT GPS friendly,” advises its Web site — which is frankly no more than we expected.
The competition: Longwood Gardens
Competitions are the precursors of reality TV shows. Unlike those hour-long, soap-opera dollops of glitz, they unfold at the leisurely, literary pace of “War and Peace”; for listeners, the fun is greater the more you listen. It’s never fair to judge art the way you judge an athletic event! The jury must be crazy to have failed to advance that competitor to the second round! These are among the perennial topics of discussion among die-hard competition followers.
This summer, you can go to Fort Worth for three sweltering weeks of the Van Cliburn competition (which ends June 9), or you can drive the two-plus hours to Kennett Square, Pa., where one of the largest concert organs in the world, with more than 10,000 pipes, will be used in the inaugural Longwood Gardens International Organ Competition from June 18 to 22. It has the largest cash prize of any organ competition in the world.
The time frame is shorter because the winnowing process is more stringent; where the Cliburn starts with 30 pianists, the Longwood competition begins with 10 organists, selected from a field of 100 by an international jury. The competitors, all 30 and under, come from Bulgaria, New Zealand, France — and West Virginia; Yuri McCoy hails from Huntington, although he is now studying at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music in Houston.
Audiences can follow two rounds of competition: the preliminary (all 10 competitors playing half-hour programs; June 18-19) and the final (a maximum of five, playing programs no more than 45 minutes long; June 22). The repertory selection seems unusually free; for the preliminary round, the organists have to choose one of three Bach pieces followed by “a piece of a melodical and lyrical nature” and “a major transcribed work of overture nature.” This may be a way to avoid the kinds of repetition that can often happen at competitions where the repertory is more limited; sitting through 19 iterations of the same selection from Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella Suite” was certainly enough to inoculate my ear against that particular piece for some time.
Everything about this competition strives to match the extraordinary size of the organ, including the $40,000 award for first prize. The jury, not surprisingly, includes some heavy hitters in the organ world, including Paul Jacobs, a wunderkind turned Juilliard professor and Grammy winner; Peter Richard Conte, the organist of the famous Wanamaker Organ in a department store in Philadelphia; and Oliver Condy, who is also editor of BBC Music Magazine.
The setting itself is worth a trip: the extensive, opulent grounds of Longwood Gardens, which began as an arboretum in 1798 and already had an impressive collection of indigenous flora when Pierre S. du Pont purchased it in 1906. Du Pont transformed the garden into a gorgeous organic folly, complete with multiple fountains, a conservatory and the enormous Aeolian organ, pipe organs having been an extravagance popular with the super-rich in the early decades of the 20th century. For organ buffs, the competition’s organizers have organized an “organ crawl” the day after the competition ends, with private tours of the Wanamaker and Kimmel Center organs, as well as the Longwood Gardens instrument. But this kind of event attracts hard-core fans who book in advance; the tours are already sold out.
Longwood Gardens, 1001 Longwood Rd., Kennett Square, Pa., 610-388-1000, longwoodgardens.org/OrganCompetition.html
The summer home: Castleton
I have perhaps done an injustice to Castleton by bringing up the difficulties of finding it. I have never actually, in its five years of existence, gotten so lost that I missed a performance (although some of my readers have). And if Castleton’s directors knew you were lost — if, that is, you could get enough of a cellphone signal to call them — they would certainly send out a car to show you the way in. Castleton may be the pet project of a world-famous international conductor, but it’s also his home, and his festival retains an endearingly homemade flavor. Apprentice artists, who are spending the summer on the grounds, trail in and out of the crowded dressing areas; Maazel’s wife, the actress Dietlinde Turban, is an active participant, as are as many of their children as can be collected from their various college and postgraduate activities. Although the Maazels have built a 650-seat theater, some of the events still take place in the intimate performance space that Maazel originally built as a private theater in his house.
So maybe it’s fitting that you never quite know what you’re getting. The first season at Castleton focused on chamber operas by Benjamin Britten; the festival has swung around in recent years to focus on Puccini, at the other end of the size spectrum. This year’s two operas are among the biggest in the repertory: Puccini’s “Girl of the Golden West” and Verdi’s “Otello.” The festival is presenting Mahler’s 4th and 5th symphonies on its orchestral programs for good measure. Another innovation is a double bill pairing Cocteau’s monodrama “La voix humaine” with Poulenc’s one-act operatic setting of it. For good measure, there’s something you surely won’t hear anywhere else: Maazel conducting Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Requiem.”
Say this for Castleton: Performances there haven’t always been of equal quality, but I’ve seen some great things. It has offered classical music fans here a chance to get in on a story at the beginning. And wherever its narrative leads, it always keeps me coming back for more, with genuine interest. I’ll be there to see whether they can pull off “Otello.” However it turns out, it surely won’t be boring.
The Castleton Festival, 663 Castleton View Rd., Castleton, Va., 540-937-3454, www.castletonfestival.org. Note: The festival tent is located at 7 Castleton Meadow Lane, but the Castleton View Road address is, the Web site says, more GPS-friendly.
For a calendar of these events and more, visit Going Out Guide.