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In a Year of Comings And Goings, the WNO Stood Very Strong

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 26, 2004; Page N02

It's been a busy and eventful year for music in the capital area, what with the return of the Washington National Opera to the Kennedy Center, the announced departure of National Symphony Orchestra director Leonard Slatkin (in 2008), the return to two-handed pianism (and such pianism!) from Leon Fleisher, and any number of rewarding performances around town and country.

The WNO, in particular, has had a crack season. At least two of its productions, Britten's "Billy Budd" and Rossini's "Cenerentola," were just as exciting theatrically as musically -- brilliant, vibrant opera by any standards. Moreover, the word that the troupe has commissioned a new work -- "Democracy," with music by Scott Wheeler and words by Romulus Linney, after the novel by Henry Adams -- gives us something to look forward to in January. And, over the next few years, Washington will join New York, San Francisco, Seattle and a handful of other American cities when it mounts a complete and unified staging of Wagner's "Ring des Nibelungen," directed by Francesca Zambello. Even the company's off-nights could be fascinating: After all, anybody can do a bad "Trovatore," but to create an atrocity such as the Washington National Opera managed in October takes a certain kind of genius.

Samuel Ramey, left, and Robin Leggate were part of the WNO's stellar "Billy Budd." (Jonathan Ernst For The Washington Post)

The Slatkin era at the NSO is rapidly coming to an end, and it seems safe to say that he will leave the orchestra in better and more reliable shape than ever -- section by section, player by player, night after night. For that alone, he would deserve our gratitude, but the best of his performances were lucid and admirable in their own right. And if the NSO musicians played with greater energy and enthusiasm for certain guest conductors -- Lorin Maazel, Valery Gergiev and music director laureate Mstislav Rostropovich come to mind immediately -- than they did for Slatkin this season, well, that's only to be expected. It's not easy to be music director -- to build and shape an orchestra, a repertory, an audience over the course of many years -- and the presence of a new figure can be liberating.

There is considerable mystery surrounding Slatkin's departure -- did he jump or was he pushed? Everybody's whispering but nobody's talking, at least not for attribution. Whatever the facts of the matter, whatever the current griping within the Kennedy Center and within the orchestra (where Slatkin still enjoys a fair degree of support -- more so, it seems, since the news was announced), the NSO will have to look long and hard to find anybody capable of filling his shoes.

Moreover, come February, the NSO will be up against some unprecedented competition when the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra moves into the new Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda to play a subscription concert every week. When that happens, this will be the only metropolitan area in the country to have two full-time, full-size and top-class symphony orchestras offering dueling programs every week. This "battle of the bands" must make the NSO a little nervous, especially since the Baltimore Symphony will be playing right in the heart of suburban subscriber-land (with Red Line Metro service at the doorstep and free parking to boot), but it can be only good news for the listener.

Two of the Kennedy Center's most reliable series take place in the pocket-size Terrace Theater. The Vocal Arts Society continues to present brainy, carefully chosen programs there, featuring some of the world's finest singers: Performances by soprano Measha Brueggergosman and baritone Matthias Goerne were especially winning. And the Washington Performing Arts Society offers an altogether admirable series of piano recitals there on occasional weekend afternoons, in honor of the late Patrick and Evelyn Swarthout Hayes. WPAS was also responsible for bringing in the Pittsburgh Symphony, under the direction of Mariss Jansons, for the most brilliantly virtuosic, immaculately calibrated and surpassingly musical concert of orchestral works heard at the Kennedy Center since the Berlin Philharmonic's last visit.

Over on Capitol Hill, the abundant offerings provided by the Library of Congress were augmented this year with a three-week Washington Early Music Festival -- the first, we are promised, in a series of such events. Groups with colorful names like the Suspicious Cheese Lords, Armonia Nova, Chesapeake Viol Consort and Washington Cornett and Sackbutt Ensemble vied for attention, and there was a concert made up entirely of music performed at the coronation of George II in Westminster Abbey on Oct. 11, 1727, with works by Henry Purcell, Thomas Tallis and Orlando Gibbons, and the four anthems composed by George Frideric Handel especially for the occasion. When and if Prince Charles eventually takes the British throne, he'll be hard-put to find a better program.

This was the year that the Theater Chamber Players folded, after more than three decades of varied and imaginative programming. But it was also the year that Washington Concert Opera stepped back from the brink of bankruptcy and presented a terrific performance of Rossini's "La Donna del Lago" at Lisner Auditorium. The evening's clear star was Lawrence Brownlee, who has a tenor voice of high, florid beauty that he employs with spectacular confidence, dexterity and musical intelligence.

The comeback of the year belonged to 76-year-old Leon Fleisher, who lost the use of his right hand back in the early 1960s to dystonia, a neurological movement disorder, and recovered it only now, through (of all things!) experimental Botox therapy at the National Institutes of Health. He produced a radiant new album -- entitled, appropriately, "Two Hands" -- on Vanguard Classics, with miniatures by Bach, Domenico Scarlatti, Chopin and Debussy, followed by the massive Sonata in B-flat by Franz Schubert. Fleisher described his return to playing with two hands as "a state of grace." "It's a state of ecstasy," he said. "It's wonderful." His listeners will surely agree.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company