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Kennedy Center's 2009-10 Season Blends the Familiar and the New

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 4, 2009; Page C12

Instead of focusing on another country, the major festival at the Kennedy Center next year will focus on another landscape: the terrain inhabited by artists with various disabilities, from deafness to diabetes, around the world. This was a highlight of the 2009-10 season schedule, which the Kennedy Center announced at a news conference yesterday.

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This June 2010 festival of the Kennedy Center affiliate VSA Arts (formerly Very Special Arts), celebrating the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, is a centerpiece of a season that is far from splashy. Certainly it has big highlights, including the return of the Mariinsky Theatre, which will bring two operas in concert and, next March, Prokofiev's sprawling "War and Peace."

"War and Peace" is emblematic of the season as a whole. It is hugely expensive to mount, and offers spectacle aplenty, calling for more than 200 performers. But it's not exactly a popular repertory staple. At a time of considerable hardship, it offers less escapism than food for thought.

The Kennedy Center hasn't cut back its artistic budget for this season, according to the center's president, Michael Kaiser, who says the $89 million price tag is in line with other seasons. It's a program that mingles the familiar (the Mariinsky, the Bolshoi Ballet, the first Washington performances of Balanchine's "Nutcracker") with the thoughtful and challenging (a second installment of "Ballet Across America," last year's survey of small companies around the nation).

"This is a risky season," says Kaiser, pointing to the programming of the VSA Arts festival instead of a big geopolitical extravaganza; the presence of less-known dance companies such as the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre (from Taiwan) and the Compañía Nacional de Danza (from Spain) led by the choreographer Nacho Duato; or a new play commissioned from Terrence McNally, "Golden Age." The latter will run concurrently with two other popular McNally plays on operatic subjects, "Master Class" and "The Lisbon Traviata."

The other theatrical highlights certainly aren't feel-good, though they may be must-sees. They include "August: Osage County," the large-scale, loose-limbed, Tony Award-winning drama by Tracy Letts about several generations of a dysfunctional family, starring Estelle Parsons; and the Sydney Theatre Company's "A Streetcar Named Desire," the production directed by Liv Ullmann, with Cate Blanchett as Stella. Balancing out these are the requisite comfort food: the Broadway musical versions of "Young Frankenstein" and "Mary Poppins."

The National Symphony Orchestra is offering a similar balance of the new-but-safe and the familiar. The new involves a two-program series conducted by the composer John Adams, who has become something of a go-to guy for organizations looking for new ways to present contemporary music, and whose wonderful concerto "The Dharma at Big Sur," with MacArthur winner Leila Josefowicz as soloist, is definitely one not to miss. There are a string of debuting conductors unknown to many Americans: Juraj Valcuha, Jakub Hrusa and Alexander Vedernikov. There's also a new piano concerto from the fine composer Jennifer Higdon.

As for the familiar, it comes from the orchestra's two leading conductors: Iván Fischer with Bach's Mass in B Minor as one of his five subscription programs, and Christoph Eschenbach, who will not take over as music director until 2010, with the Verdi Requiem. The orchestra's last music director, Leonard Slatkin, returns with a program of Holst and Elgar.

This season's stand-in for the Kennedy Center's usual world cultural tour is "Focus on Russia," which offers a thematic link between different artistic genres throughout the year -- Evgeny Kissin playing at the NSO's opening night, Steven Isserlis and Kirill Gerstein offering the Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata in the Fortas Chamber Music series -- rather than a single celebration of the country.

More celebratory, perhaps, is a week-long festival called "Gospel Across America," or a rich jazz program including the Women in Jazz Festival and a series called "Beyond Category," with Bill Frisell and others, a nod to Duke Ellington's dictum that some great art is just that.

As for the VSA Arts festival, it involves more than 2,000 artists from around the world, from the China Disabled People's Performing Art Troupe to hearing-impaired percussionist Evelyn Glennie (performing with the National Symphony Orchestra) to Dale Chihuly, the glass artist who lost his sight in one eye in a car accident and who will create an installation for the festival.


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