The Kennedy Center broke with its season-announcement tradition by announcing its 2017-2018 classical music season — the National Symphony Orchestra, the Washington National Opera and the Fortas Chamber Music Concerts — on Monday afternoon. Announcements of the rest of the season — theater, dance and other elements — will follow at a later date.
This was largely so that Gianandrea Noseda, the NSO’s incoming music director, whose calendar is filled with international engagements, could preside over the announcement of his inaugural season.
And the news looks promising for Washington music-lovers. Noseda opens his tenure with a free concert on the Mall. He will conduct major vocal works, from John Adams’s “The Gospel According to the Other Mary” to the Verdi Requiem, and a range of thoughtful programs including works by Brahms (the second piano concerto with Yefim Bronfman), Berg and Dallapiccola. And in April, he will conduct Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the superstar Siberian baritone who recently announced he was withdrawing from the opera stage (but not from concert performances) because of side effects of his treatment for brain cancer.
Add good soloists and other conductors — including a Kennedy Center residency by Leila Josefowicz with both the Knussen and Stravinsky violin concertos; Yuja Wang playing the Prokofiev Fifth Concerto; the return of Donald Runnicles leading the Mahler 10th — and it’s the most interesting and balanced season the NSO has offered for some time.
“No [program] has the same format,” Noseda said in a brief conversation backstage at the Kennedy Center before a performance of the NSO’s all-American program this week. The idea, he said, is to break away from the traditional format of “overture, concerto, symphony,” in which “you really know more or less what you are going to listen to,” and create concerts that are “singular events.”
Noseda will conduct eight subscription concerts (out of 22) and two special performances. He will lead themed programs, like one spotlighting the influence of Bach in later works such as the Berg violin concerto (with James Ehnes); evening-length works, like the Adams; and one-off events such as Hvorostovsky in Shostakovich’s settings of poems by Michelangelo.
Though absent the thrill of the new, WNO and the Fortas series have both produced solid seasons that also reflect more collaboration between the individual Kennedy Center entities. WNO’s year is heavy on Italian opera, with two of Verdi’s biggest works — the “Aida” that Francesca Zambello, the company’s artistic director, recently directed in San Francisco, and Tim Albery’s “Don Carlo,” first seen in Philadelphia. Three of the “Don Carlo” soloists — Leah Crocetto, Russell Thomas and Eric Owens — will also sing the Verdi Requiem with the NSO.
Other Italian-language works on WNO’s program are Handel’s “Alcina” (starring Angela Meade, conducted by Jane Glover, directed by Anne Bogart) and a revival of “The Barber of Seville.” The American presence includes a new one-hour opera by Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek, whose “Breaking the Waves” has recently won so much acclaim.
“For the most part, we have pretty big pieces that deal with interesting questions of morality,” Zambello says. “Many have been absent or never seen here.”
The Leonard Bernstein centennial unites all of the center’s musical entities. The NSO will open its season with a Bernstein evening conducted by Noseda, with Yo-Yo Ma and the singer Cynthia Erivo. WNO will close its season with “Candide,” in Zambello’s production from the Glimmerglass Festival. The Fortas Chamber Music Concerts will present a Bernstein evening of song and spoken reminiscences. And some singers from WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz program will join the NSO in “Songfest,” a piece the NSO commissioned from Bernstein 40 years ago, conducted by another Leonard — the orchestra’s former music director, Slatkin. (Also part of the Bernstein celebration is the conductor Yutaka Sado, one of Bernstein’s last conducting students, making his American debut leading Bernstein’s Second Symphony.)
The Fortas series will also present a recital by Christoph Eschenbach, part of a two-week festival honoring him in his new role as the NSO’s conductor laureate — a classy gesture of appreciation on the orchestra’s part.
Other Fortas highlights include Dawn Upshaw and So Percussion in a new work by Pulitzer Prize-winner Caroline Shaw; the ensemble Les Violons du Roy with the dynamite violinist Isabelle Faust; a recital by the cellist Steven Isserlis; and four quartets — the Takacs, Dover, Emerson and Calidore.
The Kennedy Center itself is also presenting classical music. Lang Lang is coming in a solo recital, and, in a co-presentation with Washington Performing Arts, Rome’s Academy of Santa Cecilia Orchestra under Antonio Pappano will perform with Kennedy Center honoree Martha Argerich on piano.
By announcing its classical season now, the Kennedy Center is putting itself more on the international timeline — Carnegie Hall, for instance, announces its season later this week. It also shows hopes of putting itself more on the international map — and, perhaps, on the local one. In July, Noseda and the NSO will make a big push to reach local audiences with a “Carmina Burana” at Wolf Trap on the 28th and, the next day, the free concert on the Mall — two months before the season begins. “You have to create,” he says, “this kind of variety.”