Can the Kennedy Center push classical music beyond its limits?

Breaking out of an ‘institutional’ mind-set

Michael Kaiser, the president of the Kennedy Center, says there’s something wrong with the arts. In his Huffington Post column a few weeks ago, he averred that in “the classic arts” — nonprofit ones such as like opera, theater, dance and classical music — there simply isn’t enough excellent art being created. He blames “the institutional nature of our arts ecology,” in which “groups of people are now more responsible for making art than the individual.”

He speaks from experience. This is certainly a problem at the Kennedy Center. Its classical music programming for 2011-12 reflects exactly what we have come to expect. There are big names (Joshua Bell, the Takacs Quartet, even the Vienna Philharmonic). And there’s middlebrow taste.

Classical music programming at the Kennedy Center is hampered by the fact that the Kennedy Center, which claims to be a world-class arts institution, doesn’t have a world-class orchestra (as of this season, it will be encumbered with a second-tier opera company as well). True, administrators have taken what they see as steps to help by engaging Christoph Eschenbach as music director, giving them a marquee name, a conductor once known as an orchestra builder and someone whom the players seem genuinely to adore.

So perhaps the jury should stay out for another season on what effect Eschenbach will actually have. There are a few new compositions on the National Symphony Orchestra’s 2011-12 program, including a couple by Central Europeans (Detlev Glanert, Jorg Widmann) and one big new work labeled “TBD.” The two-year focus on Beethoven continues: One highlight is a concert performance of “Fidelio.” But the most hotly anticipated Eschenbach performances may be his appearances as pianist — accompanying Matthias Goerne, for one, in Schubert’s “Winterreise.” All fine. Not trailblazing.

It’s not too early, though, to judge the Kennedy Center’s festivals. A “festival,” in Kennedy Center parlance, is a synonym for: a.) an all-out focus on a foreign region; and b.) doing the expected where classical music is concerned. In 2011-12, the Kennedy Center’s international spotlight will fall on Vienna, Prague and Budapest — which is to say, the core of the standard classical repertory.

But will classical music shine? The NSO will participate with six programs of the music of Bartok and Brahms, Liszt and Dvorak, and Janacek. Certainly it’s all worthy music: Most of it has been played thousands of times. And the Vienna Philharmonic and Lorin Maazel will offer “ ‘The Ring’ Without Words,” the orchestral highlights of Wagner’s operatic tetralogy. Are these the ingredients of a festival that will get audiences talking, make people feel they have to travel to see it? Is this “excellent art?”

There are a lot of festivals across the country that do attempt to push limits. At Lincoln Center, the new White Light Festival focuses on spirituality and transcendence in music, from Shaolin monks to Meredith Monk. The San Francisco Symphony has made its American Mavericks festival a calling card. (It’s taking it on a national tour next season.) The Ojai Festival presents a new take on contemporary music by engaging a different music director/curator every year.

The Kennedy Center, by contrast, appears to have fallen into an idea of monumentality in keeping with its monolithic building: it often trades more on name recognition than artistic conviction. The lion’s share of the experimental or funkier fare the Kennedy Center presents ends up as free concerts at the Millennium Stages, conveying the message that this kind of work is of secondary importance.

What could the Kennedy Center do? How about a festival of composer-performers, from Caleb Burhans to Steve Reich? How about a Vienna festival that focuses on the ways Vienna is trying to break free of its artistic past; perhaps a collaboration with the Viennese festival “Wien Modern”? How about turning over the reins to some of the great lions that the center keeps presenting, like Yo-Yo Ma, along the lines of the “Perspectives” series at Carnegie Hall?

“Where are the new brilliant voices that astonish, educate and entertain us?” Kaiser says. He knows, as well as we do, that they’re out there. What the Kennedy Center needs is someone to come in with fresh ideas and some new visions to help find and celebrate them. “We in responsible arts positions must give [young people] something to talk about,” Kaiser writes. His words read as an apology. In 2011-12, this is exactly what the Kennedy Center’s music programming is not doing.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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