For fall 2010, Washington's classical music companies are bringing in big names

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 12, 2010

Recession? Who cares? Washington's classical music presenters this season are responding to economic travails with a string of big, glittery, crowd-attracting names. The Washington National Opera is offering the company debut of the powerhouse American soprano Deborah Voigt, who will sing Strauss's "Salome," a role far better suited to her silvery voice than some of the Italian fare she's essaying at other companies this season, in October. The Washington Performing Arts Society is offering recitals by Yo-Yo Ma (October), Emanuel Ax (November), Anne-Sophie Mutter (November), Renée Fleming (who will be in D.C. twice this year; she's also singing at the NSO's season opener) and Hilary Hahn (both in January). The National Symphony Orchestra is offering a string of notable soloists -- Fleming, Lang Lang, Christian Tetzlaff -- in what looks to be a strong season celebrating the arrival of its new music director, Christoph Eschenbach. And the Post-Classical Ensemble is opening the season with an in-depth, three-concert exploration of one of the most popular of American composers: George Gershwin (September).

What's most encouraging in Washington this season, though, is the depth: There are a number of exciting projects with less widely known forces. I'm pleased, for instance, to have a chance to hear the opera "Florencia en el Amazonas" when the Maryland Opera Studio of the University of Maryland puts it on in November. Here's a chance for us in Washington to debate some of the issues of contemporary American opera composition -- is tunefulness a bad thing? -- with a work that has remained popular with audiences since its 1996 premiere. It's also a chance to hear an opera by Daniel Catán just after the September debut of his latest, "Il Postino," with Plácido Domingo at the Los Angeles Opera. Until "Il Postino" makes its way to Washington, "Florencia" will have to sate our curiosity.

Strathmore, meanwhile, is showcasing two living lions in November: Steve Reich and Philip Glass, composers whose names are often linked, much to their mutual dismay. They're linked because they're both mavericks who started out on the New York scene with their own ensembles and ended up as the fathers of the school commonly known as Minimalism (an inadequate term that neither of them much likes either). Reich's music is smart, thoughtful, focused, with sharp crisp edges; it will be featured in a program by the Bang on a Can All-Stars, themselves a well-known contemporary force, which will present the American premiere of the Pulitzer Prize-winner's 2009 piece "2x5." Glass is more of a Romantic at heart, embracing big forms (he's written more than 20 operas) and big ensembles (he often writes for full orchestra, which Reich no longer does). His latest violin concerto, his second, which had its premiere in London in April, bears the sobriquet "The American Seasons," and Robert McDuffie and the Venice Baroque Orchestra are pairing it with Vivaldi's work of the same name and are touring it all over the United States this fall, with Strathmore as its Washington area stop.

There are, as always in Washington, some excellent vocal recitals on the calendar. Thomas Hampson, the self-appointed guardian of American song, returns to the Library of Congress in October; the reportedly excellent mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, whom I have yet to hear live, bows at the Vocal Arts Society in November. And Lied lovers should make a point of hearing the tenor Christoph Genz and the veteran pianist and writer Charles Rosen, who come together at the Clarice Smith Center to offer Schumann's cycle "Dichterliebe" in October.

The season also encompasses an end and a beginning. Till Fellner, the lucid Austrian pianist, has over the last two years been traversing the complete Beethoven sonatas, concert by concert, establishing himself in the ears and even hearts of local audiences. In October, he concludes the cycle with the last three sonatas -- only to return in January, thanks to WPAS, to the Kennedy Center with a program that doesn't include any Beethoven at all, offering a new work, by the composer Kit Armstrong, instead.

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