IF YOU'RE PINING to hear the mighty Chicago Symphony for the first time in seven years, next season is for you. It's coming not once, but twice, courtesy of the Washington Performing Arts Society.
But if you would prefer the resplendent Vienna Philharmonic, touring in this country for the first time since 1979, you're out of luck, also courtesy of the Washington Performing Arts Society.
Every year about this time, the WPAS, Washington's principal impresarial enterprise, finds itself up to its bass fiddle in schedules--the coming year's, the one after that, and the one after that. All this juggling is necessary because stars of the caliber the organization deals with are often booked several years in advance and because money-losing propositions must be balanced carefully against lucrative ones. The staff is wooing and weaseling, trying to firm up its commitments but still expressing readiness to change plans if the eminent figure should just happen get a free evening on short notice. With roughly 120 performing arts events planned for the season starting in September, the organization is now in its busiest time, and the machinations necessary to orchestrate it are as complicated as Ives' Fourth.
The bottom line for the nonprofit WPAS is this: You can't please everybody but you must please enough to guarantee the 50 to 60 percent minimum subscription rate necessary to stay within the budget of about $3 million.
The Chicago concerts are the costliest ones of the season--at $40,000 each. One will be under music director Sir George Solti, and the other under principal guest conductor Claudio Abbado. Solti also will bring along the prestigious Chicago Symphony Chorus for a performance of Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis."
And even with full houses--and there is little doubt that the Chicago will play at capacity--the WPAS will lose money on those two events.
So something else that also might well sell out still had to go. In this case it was the Vienna orchestra under Leonard Bernstein. "You have to live with the realities of this business. We just couldn't handle Vienna and Chicago," explained WPAS managing director Douglas Wheeler. "Tickets would have to go for $50 for the Vienna and that's just too much. Also, Bernstein is supposed to be appearing with the National Symphony at roughly the same time."
The Cleveland Orchestra, too, has been omitted from next season; WPAS has taken losses on it for several years.
There are others who would sell out--and make money--who won't be coming. Dame Joan Sutherland, for example, has declined invitations from WPAS since an unfortunate incident during a 1971 event. Sutherland was about to start her last song before intermission, when a woman stood up in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall's main floor and blurted impatiently, "May I ask why you always sing with your music on a music stand in front of you?"
Sutherland looked at the questioner and replied firmly, "Because I have a rotten memory. And if I don't use my music, I won't sing." So much for that.
"Ever since," bemoaned Wheeler, "I have begged and pleaded with Dame Joan. I have sent her flowers. I have driven her to the airport. But it has led to nothing."
Likewise, there are two celebrities who have not made up their minds in time for the subscription series--Luciano Pavarotti and Vladimir Horowitz. "Pavarotti's fee is going up so fast I wouldn't even hazard a guess at what it may be now," said Wheeler. "So we might get a call next September saying he would be here in November. We think some people are now paying him $100,000, and you know singers love to look at each other's fees. Management must keep in line or lose them."
These performers delay partly because they like to make last-minute decisions and partly because they assume they will sell out without subscription sales anyway.
But Horowitz got a surprise last spring, with 260 vacant seats at a concert here. This did not mean, however, that WPAS lost money on Horowitz. But according to Jan Kendall, the Society's associate manager, "we made only about $3,000, which is not very much." One reason for the unexpectedly low attendance was a rather esoteric program; there was only one piece by Chopin, and the Schumann work was the "Kinderscenen," which Horowitz has done here perhaps half a dozen times. "One doesn't tell a Horowitz, however, not to do 'Kinderscenen' again," Kendall explained. Kendall also explained the reason for those lengthy intermissions that occur at Horowitz recitals: "He simply goes back to his dressing room, takes off his clothes and lies down."
Other performers who regularly sell out here are pianists Rudolf Serkin and Maurizio Pollini, singers Leontyne Price, Janet Baker and Marilyn Horne, violinists Isaac Stern and Itzhak Perlman and, in her first WPAS recital this season, soprano Kiri Te Kanawa. (Some of these performers are also on National Symphony programs regularly, or perhaps at the Library of Congress.)
And even then, some don't come here as often as they might: "We'd love to have Price every year," said Wheeler, "but she prefers to come each second year, so she can prepare new programs and not repeat herself."
Trying to spot trends well ahead of their time has led to mixed results, Wheeler said. Some years ago Wheeler and WPAS managing director emeritus Patrick Hayes picked James Galway as a star early on, at considerable advantage to WPAS. But Wheeler recalls a less fortuitous gamble in the early 1970s: "I thought folk dance was going to be very big, so I booked everyone in sight, and we lost our shirts."
Some of the lesser-known artists he is gambling on in the near future include pianists Cecile Licad and Andre'-Michel Schub, violinist Gidon Kremer and cellist Yo Yo Ma. Young soprano Kathleen Battle scored such a triumph at her Terrace Theater recital last fall that she will be brought back in the much larger Concert Hall this fall.
Next season involves additional attention to Washington-based artists, will include continued participation in the avant-garde 9th Street Crossing festival and sponsorship of a potentially even more avant-garde New Music America gathering for a week in October. In addition, the group will take on the Emerson String Quartet concerts at the Renwick and is now running the Handel Festival Orchestra concerts at the Terrace Theater. And there are other projects.
In November, Kendall starts organizing all of this information into 10 subscription series meant to minimize program duplication ("This is going to be the year of the Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto, I'm afraid"), to avoid overlapping events on the same evening (causing parking problems at the Kennedy Center) and to maximize diversity within a series. For instance, within the series called "Stars of the Opera," she's used the drawing card of Leontyne Price to get people to buy a ticket for Kathleen Battle, and so on. Three hundred thousand brochures itemizing her artful accommodations will be mailed out Feb. 28.
The Washington Performing Arts Society is an outgrowth of the Hayes Concert Bureau, which Pat Hayes founded soon after World War II. "I didn't have any money at the time," Hayes recalled recently, "so I borrowed $2,500 each from four friends to get it started. By 1949-1950, I had the run of the town," and he retained it until his retirement last season. The Hayes Bureau became the Washington Performing Arts Society in the mid-'60s, when Wheeler and Kendall joined it; then it was still a one-room operation.
Now, out of a staff of 14 plus the box office, Wheeler, Kendall and manager Craig Hosmer form a ruling triumvirate. And what was once a financially precarious operation is now in sound order. The recession has not hurt business; subscription sales were up this season. And though one of Wheeler's two main burdens is fund-raising, he granted, "The wolves are not at the door anymore."
Here is a chronology of next year's main series events, as currently planned:
Joyce Trisler Danscompany, Sept. 29, 30, Oct. 1; Nathan Milstein, Oct. 1; Camerata Bern, Oct. 7; Bamberg Orchestra, Oct. 8; Washington Bach Consort, Oct. 9; Kathleen Battle, Oct. 14; Vienna Chamber Orchestra, Oct. 15; New York Philharmonic, Oct. 21; English Chamber Orchestra, Oct. 24; Crowsnest, Oct. 27-29; Atlanta Symphony, Oct. 30; Yo Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax, Young Uck Kim, Oct. 31; Paul Taylor Dance Company, one week to be announced; Trisha Brown, Laurie Anderson and Robert Rauschenberg, Nov. 3; Gaechinger Kantorei and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Nov. 5; David Perry, Nov. 7; Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Nov. 11; San Francisco Symphony, Nov. 12; Daniel Barenboim, Nov. 12; Ludwigsburg Festival Orchestra and Chorus, Nov. 26; Los Angeles Philharmonic, Nov. 27 and 28; Vladimir Ashkenazy and Itzhak Perlman, Dec. 3; Rudolf Serkin, Dec. 11; Isaac Stern, Jan. 14; Chicago Symphony, Jan. 16 and 28; Boston Symphony, Feb. 4; Hague Philharmonic, Feb. 5; Jean Pierre Rampal, Feb. 11; Garrick Ohlsson, Feb. 12; Leontyne Price, Feb. 18; Carlos Montoya, Feb. 19; Maurizio Pollini, Feb. 19; Yo Yo Ma, Gidon Kremer, Feb. 25; Sherrill Milnes, March 10; Vienna Symphony Octet, March 11; Itzhak Perlman, March 12; Czech Philharmonic, March 17; Vienna Choir Boys, March 18; Michala Petri Trio, March 19; Y Chamber Orchestra, March 21; Elisa Monte & Dancers; French National Orchestra, March 24; Andres Segovia, March 25; Jody Gatwood, March 25; Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Octet, April 1; Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, April 6; Peter Serkin, April 7; Narciso Yepes, Nicalor Zabaleta, April 8; Israel Philharmonic, April 9; Y Chamber Orchestra, April 23; Boston Symphony, April 28; Eugene Istomin, May 5; Thalia Moore, May 7; Millennium Ensembles, May 12; Myra Merritt, May 13; Dance Theater of Harlem, May 15-20; Danish National Orchestra, May 19; Y Chamber Orchestra, May 21; Pittsburgh Symphony, May 22.