The organization formerly known as the Washington Performing Arts Society unveiled a new season, a new look, and a new name today: it will move into 2014-15 as Washington Performing Arts.
What that new look means remains somewhat hazy. The press release bristled with buzzwords about “immersive residencies” and “rich programmatic connections across performances,” but it wasn’t until a couple of pages in that it began revealing what the season was actually going to present.
WPA, as we must now call it, seems anxious to reframe what it does in a broader and more inclusive cultural context. Community involvement, and collaboration, are bywords. The whole orchestra series has been recast to juxtapose the big internationally-known names, heretofore the organization’s bread and butter (the Leipzig Gewandhaus under Riccardo Chailly will arrive in November) with educational initiatives, like a year-long Wynton Marsalis residency with the Shenandoah Conservatory Symphony Orchestra, working on the world premiere of the revised version of his own “Blues Symphony.” Marsalis will also perform with his quintet and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra as part of a particular focus this season on him and his work.
The big names are all as lustrous as ever: in addition to the Gewandhaus, Washington will see the Budapest Festival Orchestra under Iván Fischer (in a long-overdue visit given Fischer’s former position with the National Symphony Orchestra); l’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande under Charles Dutoit; l’Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in a concert performance of Monteverdi’s “Orfeo” under Sir John Eliot Gardiner; and those welcome regulars, the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Ségun. And the “educational” institutions include the New World Symphony, the training orchestra for young professionals founded and led by Michael Tilson Thomas, in its area debut.
No longer segregated by genre boundaries, the solo artists presented range from Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, in their first two-piano performances, to Evgeny Kissin and András Schiff (appearing separately); from the star violinist Joshua Bell to the new-music cellist Maya Beiser. Gil Shaham will play Bach; Paul Lewis will play Beethoven; and Orion Weiss will appear with the Salzburg Marionettes. A focus on vocal performance, in all its manifestations, extends from opera (Renée Fleming) to jazz (Cécile McLorin Salvant) to cabaret (Ute Lemper in a program about Neruda’s poetry) to the spoken word: Julian Sands, an actor, will give an evening called “The Poetry of Harold Pinter.”
Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project has a special place, both as a performer and in an educational initiative involving fifth- and sixth-grade classes in DC, along with a range of artists who have been associated with this project over the years, including a lot of Washington Performing Arts’s “world-music” programming this season: the Galician bagpiper Cristina Pato, the tabla player Zakir Hussain, and others. Dance offerings include some established and rising stars from New York City: the Dance Theater of Harlem, Gallim Dance, and Jessica Lang Dance. And the organization will continue to present young artists in local debuts: this year’s roster includes Beatrice Rana, Jan Lisiecki, Ray Chen, the Danish String Quartet, and many others, as well as the contemporary teen ensemble Face the Music and the jazzy, vintage band The Hot Sardines.
There’s a lot of excitement on the program: the organization is clearly throwing open its arms to embrace more performers, more age groups, wider audiences. The result is a kind of hodgepodge that does its best to bring artistic excitement and community outreach under a single umbrella. Unfortunately, Washington Performing Arts has framed its changes in a kind of Powerpoint-speak more suitable to animating board members than engaging audiences.
“The vitality of the arts hinges upon leadership, partnership and dynamic engagement,” said Jenny Bilfield, the president and CEO who has spearheaded these changes, in a press statement. “Washington Performing Arts is well positioned to deliver on all three and has an institutional commitment to excellence for the long-term.” She continued on to frame the institution’s current mandate: “providing a platform for our frequently returning artists to connect more deeply with our audiences, commissioning new work, launching and nurturing young artists and mobilizing teaching and learning opportunities that enrich the lives of children in our public schools.”
Well and good. Washington Performing Arts, with its rather anodyne new tag line “We make it happen,” just needs to work more on getting its story across and reminding both itself and its audiences that the arts still come first.