For classical music programmers, fall is the time when you bring out the big guns, and spring is when you do more unusual programs or themed festivals. This season, this philosophy is making for a more interesting spring for Washington’s classical music lovers. Whether your thing is the high classical tradition or living American composers, the area’s musical offerings run the gamut — with a particularly strong showing of exciting new-music concerts signaling that Washington may be awakening from its long sleep in the arms of musical tradition.
Most anticipated event: The Vienna Philharmonic represents the best and worst of classical tradition. Best: superb playing. Worst: hidebound conservatism, including the glacial pace of admitting women to its august ranks. But it hasn’t been to Washington in almost nine years, and its Feb. 29 concert — led by a local, Lorin Maazel — will certainly be one of the events of the season, for better or worse.
Most surprising event: I talk a lot about American opera, and the stereotypes of American opera — it’s supposedly accessible, melodious, influenced by Broadway musicals, colored by Menotti. And I point out often that the composer Dominick Argento has written a lot of good American operas that bucked those stereotypes, and should be better remembered and more often revived. Imagine my delight to see the University of Maryland doing just that, honoring this important living composer on his 85th birthday with a multi-part birthday celebration involving full staged performances of two of his operas, “Miss Havisham’s Fire” and “Postcards From Morocco,” plus a full complement of concerts, recitals, and lectures. Don’t miss “A Water Bird Talk,” an engaging monodrama, or “Miss Manners on Music.” Anyone interested in talking about American opera would do well to attend. March 30-April 29, Clarice Smith Center at the University of Maryland.
Secret tip: Marc-Andre Hamelin’s last recital in Washington was one of my favorite concerts in 2011. He returns this spring for an intriguing recital exploring the music of France’s two most successful 19th-century pianist-composers, Chopin and Alkan, and the reason why one is remembered and the other is virtually forgotten. Presented by Pro Musica Hebraica in the Kennedy Center’s diminutive Terrace Theater, the event is almost sure to sell out. April 2 at 7:30 p.m.
Most familiar event: The Kennedy Center is mounting a festival of Vienna, Budapest and Prague! It’s like hosting a festival in Washington to celebrate the Mall: shining a spotlight on something that’s central to, even ubiquitous in our daily lives. For classical music fans, this festival offers an excuse to hear Beethoven and Strauss — composers who are hardly underperformed in regular years. All right: there are a lot of concerts of a lot of repertory we love: Beethoven’s “Fidelio,” Schubert’s “Winterreise” with Matthias Goerne, and a lot of the great Bartok repertory that is already well known to NSO audiences thanks to the Hungarian roots of the orchestra’s last principal conductor, Ivan Fischer. And, of course, we get the Vienna Philharmonic. There will surely be some musical highlights, but as a festival, it might as well be titled “Business as Usual, Only More So.” Feb. 25-March 29.
Most valedictory event: After 47 years, Norman Scribner is stepping down from the Choral Arts Society: yet another seismic shift in Washington’s choral landscape. Expect a stirring performance of the Brahms Requiem from him on April 22, his last concert in the post; and a deserved heaping-on of laurels at a celebratory concert on June 13.
Most contemporary events, period: To paraphrase a “Peanuts” comic strip in which Lucy confesses that her antipathy to Beethoven is breaking down, little by little, new music is sneaking around, over and under Washington’s mental block. This spring is hands-down the best I’ve experienced in Washington for intriguing contemporary concerts.
Give plenty of credit to the Atlas for its new new-music series, which features a host of great performers, including Kathleen Supove (Feb. 7), the janus trio (April 5), the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE; May 17), and Deviant Septet (June 2), along with Washington’s own Great Noise Ensemble (May 11). ICE, one of the hottest new-music groups in the country, will also come to the Phillips Collection in a concert devoted to the Dutch composer Michel van der Aa on May 10; there, too, the Daedalus Quartet plays the complete string quartets of the thoughtful composer Fred Lerdahl on April 22.
The University of Maryland is bringing in Washington’s Verge Ensemble to work with Morton Subotnick, one of the first composers to work in the field of electronic music and a composer-in-residence at the school this year, and offer a concert on April 21; Subotnick will also play his signature piece from the 1960s, Silver Apples of the Moon, on April 18. Christopher O’Riley and Matt Haimovitz are bringing their multi-genre Shuffle. Play. Listen, contrasting music from Bach to Radiohead, to GMU (March 24).
And let’s not forget opera. Not only is U-Md. honoring Dominick Argento (see above); not only is the Virginia Opera is mounting Philip Glass’s opera “Orphee” at GMU on Feb. 10 and 12; but Urban Arias. devoted to contemporary opera, returns for a second season with three works including the world premiere of a new opera by Conrad Cummings and Michael Korie based on self-help manuals of the 1950s (April 13-22). Meanwhile, the ensemble eighth blackbirdbrings its staged version of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire to the Kennedy Center (April 3). It’s a veritable embarrassment of riches, making this spring season one that I am eagerly anticipating.