Classical Venues on a Major Scale
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 28, 2003; Page N04
A curious thought occurred to me the other day: Washington, perhaps uniquely among major American cities, may be a better place than ever in which to live. Segregated until the 1960s, torn with decay and municipal corruption for years thereafter, today the nation's capital, although still far from perfect, is an increasingly sophisticated and cosmopolitan place, vastly removed from the backwater of "Southern efficiency and Northern charm" so memorably described by President John Kennedy.
Take our musical life, for example. Long-timers can recall when the only places to hear classical performances were DAR Constitution Hall and Lisner Auditorium. The opening of the Kennedy Center in 1971 was a huge boon for the city, of course (and the advent of Michael M. Kaiser as president three years ago has only made it more vital). But the Kennedy Center's primacy is increasingly challenged by other venues -- the venturesome Center for the Arts at George Mason University in Fairfax, the handsome Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at Maryland in College Park and, as of 2005, the new 2,000-seat Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda.
And then there's always Constitution Hall! While I don't think many spectators will be sorry to see the Washington Opera return to the Kennedy Center Opera House (after a year-long absence during renovations), there can be no doubt that there were some evenings of exciting opera at Constitution Hall this year. Indeed, I would call the production of Wagner's "Die Walkure" -- conducted by Heinz Fricke and starring Placido Domingo, bass Alan Held and soprano Anja Kampe -- the single finest offering I've ever encountered from this troupe. And how exciting for Washington to have presented Kampe's American debut, which just might turn out to be comparable to Glenn Gould's historic first American performance at the Phillips Collection in 1955.
The Clarice Smith Center has been called a "village for the arts," with six auditoriums of one form or another and a performing arts library under one roof. The center not only serves the University of Maryland -- with its ambitious music, dance and drama programs -- but also is increasingly active in the presentation of visiting artists. One of the clear highlights of musical life in Washington last year was Opera Lafayette's complete performance of Jean-Philippe Rameau's gorgeous opera "Hippolyte et Aricie" under Ryan Brown.
When the Music Center at Strathmore Hall opens in early 2005, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will become, in effect, a "local" group, playing one concert in the Washington area every week. This will mean the first direct weekly competition the National Symphony Orchestra has ever faced, and it ought to make for some lively programming -- and livelier discussion.
And how is the Kennedy Center dealing with this encroachment? In the best possible way -- by fighting back with smart and consistent programming. The Millennium Stage, for example -- the free concert offered at 6 every night of the year in the Grand Foyer -- was always a promising idea, but a lot of what was presented during that time was pretty uninspiring. No longer -- the Kennedy Center now pays close attention to the programming, and I've heard a number of excellent concerts there this year. Meanwhile, the Vocal Arts Society has moved into the Terrace Theater, giving the Kennedy Center what may be the most distinguished series of vocal recitals in the country: The splendid Saturday afternoon Patrick and Evelyn Swarthout Hayes concerts of piano music, also at the Terrace, are almost as reliable. And then there are the offerings from the Washington Performing Arts Society, which had a particularly good year.
True, we still get the Berlin Philharmonic for only one concert while New York gets it for three. We hear Maurizio Pollini play once every decade or so, while Carnegie Hall seems a second home to the pianist. So be it. We are a smaller city. But we've never had so much music going on around us.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company
The U.S. debut of Anja Kampe as Sieglinde, here with Placido Domingo as Sigmund, highlighted the Washington Opera's new production of Wagner's "Die Walkure."