Classical music’s struggles fuel new approaches on Washington’s fall programs


Press image of JACK Quartet. (Stephen Poff)
September 9, 2011

Classical music has been struggling, like many forms of media these days, with the double bogeyman of economic recession and the looming threat of irrelevance. These challenges have some organizations on the ropes. But they are also leading to some creative and constructive ideas that are on their way to becoming trends in the field and that are evident in the Washington area this season.

One trend is curatorial thinking. Gone are the days when it was enough to present a few great pieces by great composers: Now, more programs are offered around a theme, or as part of a larger, museum-like festival exploring a period or composer. A pioneer of this kind of musical curation is Joseph Horowitz, co-founder of Washington’s Post-Classical Ensemble, who has been curating orchestra festivals for a couple of decades; his next venture here is “The Ives Project” (Nov. 3-5), which includes concerts, recordings, a master class and a symposium, with artists including the JACK Quartet and the pianist Jeremy Denk, already noted for his interpretation of Ives’s “Concord” sonata.

This isn’t the only fall “show” on the music scene. There’s the two-month “Mutual Inspirations Festival,” a celebration of Dvorak sponsored by the Czech Embassy in partnership with several Washington organizations, through Oct. 28. There’s a Franz Liszt Bicentenary Project at the Library of Congress, with panels and concerts from Oct. 19 through Nov. 5, including Louis Lortie playing the second and third parts of “Les Annees de Pelerinage” (Oct. 19) and a concert with soloists from the Budapest Festival Orchestra and the pianist Jeno Jando exploring “Liszt’s legacy” entirely through the music of another Hungarian composer, Bela Bartok (Oct. 25). (These festivals sometimes interpret their subjects rather loosely.)

Curatorial thinking also takes place on the level of individual concerts. The Folger Consort is a group that specializes in themed seasons and concerts; “A New Song” (Sept. 30-Oct. 2) celebrates the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible with music by English composers inspired by this epochal 1611 translation. The Washington Bach Consort offers “A Vintage Year: 1685” (Sept. 25), celebrating three major composers who happened to be born then: Bach, Handel and Scarlatti.

It’s even possible to curate music yourself: In January, you can compare two performances of Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites, one by Zuill Bailey on a modern instrument (Jan. 7 at the Music Center at Strathmore) and one by Paolo Pandolfo on viola da gamba (Jan. 28 at the Library of Congress).

The other heartening trend is the increasing presence of new music; a lot of today’s most interesting composers are showing up in Washington this season. Many of them are performers themselves. Gabriel Kahane is a singer-composer-songwriter whose latest song cycle, “The Memory Palace,” will be offered by the New York Festival of Song on Oct. 22 at George Washington University’s Marvin Center, presented by Vocal Arts DC. Derek Bermel, a clarinet soloist and outstanding composer, will have a world premiere on an eclectic concert for Chinese and Western instruments, featuring works by Chen Yi, Zhou Long and others, at the Freer on Nov. 3; he’s also on the Verge Ensemble’s multi-piano program Sept. 18.

Jorg Widmann, another clarinetist-composer, is showcased at the National Symphony Orchestra on Jan. 26 in both capacities, playing the Mozart concerto and showing a piece of his own; the NSO is also presenting a new work, Dec. 1-3, by the gifted but sadly unprolific Osvaldo Golijov, who is a darling of critics but has sometimes had trouble finishing pieces in time for their scheduled performances (a challenge for many composers).

Mark Adamo, who used to write reviews for The Washington Post before his composing career took off, is on the schedule with a new harp concerto that NSO principal harpist Dotian Levalier and the American Youth Philharmonic will perform Jan. 22. Daron Hagen, a musical polyglot whose last opera, “Amelia,” played at the Seattle Opera, will have the Washington premiere of his “Genji” concerto, written for the Japanese koto and string quartet, on Oct. 13 at Freer.

There’s also room for maverick stars of an older generation. The electronic music pioneer Morton Subotnick, 78, begins his residency at the University of Maryland with a day of talks and demonstrations on Oct. 4. And Philip Glass, 74, has become “old guard” enough to get on the program of the Virginia Opera, which is performing his “Orphee” at George Mason University on Feb. 10 and 12.


CRITIC’S PICK: Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra, Oct. 26. (Sonja Werner)

CRITIC’S PICK: For two years, Ivan Fischer was principal conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra. Yet for all that time, Washington never got to know his most important musical side: his work with the Budapest Festival Orchestra, which he co-founded in 1983 and has led since.Fischer’s connection with his Budapest orchestra has led to outstanding recordings and to concerts that are the toast of New York, yet Washington never got to hear them together while he was at the NSO.Finally, the Washington Performing Arts Society and the Kennedy Center are helping redress the omission by bringing the group on Oct. 26 to perform Bartok’s second piano concerto, in an all-Hungarian performance with Andras Schiff, and Schubert’s Ninth Symphony.

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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