In classical music, 1985 was a year of low budgets and high expectations, a year with a remarkable number of noteworthy anniversaries and a year for consolidating and extending some promising trends of the recent past.
Budget problems continued to be significant -- more noticeably in large organizations such as the National Symphony and the Washington Opera than in the area's smaller groups, which have never had much money to worry about anyway.
The NSO cleverly reduced its expenses by featuring members of the orchestra as soloists in some concertos, by running several highly successful weeks with a reduced orchestra performing older music and by deemphasizing expensive celebrities among its guest artists. The Washington Opera was forced to introduce more obvious and drastic economies, reducing its 1985-86 season from seven productions (72 performances) to five (47 performances).
But the economies worked. Late in the year, the opera announced such remarkable success in its current fund-raising efforts that it is expanding its goals dramatically. It expects to finish this season with a balanced budget and to restore a full (perhaps expanded) season next year, including a world premiere.
Success with audiences does not necessarily mean financial success; ticket sales account for only about one-third of an opera company's expenses. But the Washington Opera's ticket sales, already above 90 percent of capacity in recent years, continued to increase. One reason for the growing interest in opera, here and elsewhere in the United States, is undoubtedly the use of surtitles, which became established as standard procedure this year in most major American companies except the Metropolitan Opera. This may be remembered as the season when surtitles became a standard part of the operatic experience in America.
There was both good news and bad news for visiting opera here. The New York City Opera returned to open the season at Wolf Trap's Filene Center, renascent after the fire that destroyed it three years before. The Metropolitan Opera, however, announced that its historic spring tour has been ended, including annual appearances at the Kennedy Center.
New music continued to become more expressive emotionally and clear structurally -- more accessible to mainstream audiences -- as exemplified in dozens of performances in Washington. A work premiered by the National Symphony, Stephen Albert's "RiverRun," won the Pulitzer Prize for composition and deserved it. But it was not the only -- and perhaps not even the best -- piece of new music performed in Washington this year. The NSO also gave the American premiere of the complete "Polish Requiem" by Krzysztof Penderecki. This work was not eligible for a Pulitzer, since its composer is not an American, but it is music of unique power and stature. Early in the year, it seemed that Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Requiem," which was given a lavish television performance, might be one of the most memorable new works of the year. It is good music, but it has been hopelessly outclassed among the year's "Requiems."
Other significant new works included the String Quartet of John Harbison, given its premiere at the Corcoran Gallery by the Cleveland Quartet, and two splendid new song cycles: Dominick Argento's "Casa Guidi" (premiered here by Frederica von Stade, the Minnesota Orchestra and Sir Neville Marriner) and "Lyric Interval," by Hugo Weisgall with texts by John Hollander, which was given its premiere at the Library of Congress by baritone David Hamilton and pianist Stuart Raleigh.
Two outstanding new chamber works (though not premieres) shared the first prize in this year's Kennedy Center/Friedheim Competition: "Solstice" for string quartet by Robert Erickson, and Donald Martino's String Quartet.
Perhaps the most remarkable trend in new music was the significant role played in Washington by the National Symphony. Orchestras, in recent generations, have been rather conservative institutions, but the list of new works performed by the NSO and Mstislav Rostropovich is becoming long and distinguished. Notable titles in recent seasons include the Fifth Symphonies of Ezra Laderman and Aulis Sallinen, Jacob Druckman's "Vox Humana" and cello concertos by Penderecki and Arne Nordheim.
Classical music expanded its recorded repertoire significantly in two relatively new formats: video opera and compact discs. The CD format seems destined to make the vinyl LP obsolete within a few years (particularly since playback units can now be purchased for less than $200), and even with severely limited production capacity, the number of titles has expanded rapidly. There are already six complete recordings of Handel's "Messiah" on CD, six of Schubert's "Trout" Quintet and 15 (!) of Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons." Video opera has not grown quite so spectacularly, but dozens of titles -- including such relative rarities as Mozart's "Idomeneo," Britten's "Peter Grimes" and Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress" -- are now available in various formats.
Death took several notable musical figures from the international scene:
*Eugene Ormandy, who had been the music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra for 44 years and was the last major conductor of his generation remaining musically active.
*George London, one of the great bass-baritones of his generation and former director of the Washington Opera, who had been disabled for years by a stroke.
*Mischa Schneider, cellist of the Budapest String Quartet, and its last surviving member except for his brother, violinist Alexander Schneider.
In Washington, there have also been departures from the music scene. Richard Bales retired after more than 40 years as music director at the National Gallery, where he had established a strong reputation as a champion of fine, relatively unknown artists and of American music. Henry Fogel left his position as general manager of the National Symphony, where he had upgraded the professionalism of administration and begun to stabilize the organization's finances, to take the same position with the Chicago Symphony. Donald Leavitt died only a few months after his retirement as chief of the music division at the Library of Congress, where he had substantially increased the number of concerts, commissioned many compositions and overseen several significant manuscript acquisitions.
Each of these men had made major and unique contributions to the musical life of Washington, setting high standards for their successors. No successor has been named for Leavitt. Acting chief Jon Newsom, his assistant for several years, continues to implement the programs begun by Leavitt -- who was acting chief for several years before receiving the permanent appointment. George Manos, successor to Bales, and Stephen Klein, successor to Fogel, have stepped smoothly into their new positions.
The most controversial musical event of the year in Washington was undoubtedly the Fourth of July concert on the Capitol grounds, which featured Leonard Bernstein conducting the NSO and soloists in his own "Songfest." The music itself contains some magnificent songs, but the number and vigor of audience complaints indicates that, for once, Bernstein may have misjudged his audience. Whatever its qualities as music, the event indicated that for some, "Songfest" is not music for a holiday crowd picnicking on a lawn.
The year's most notable musical reunion was the return of former music director Antal Dorati (absent from the NSO podium for five years) to conduct a memorable program of Haydn, Brahms and Barto'k here. In a conversation after his final performance, Dorati said the orchestra had improved remarkably since the last time he conducted it.