Thievery Corporation performed Monday with members of the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center. (John Shore)
Classical music critic

Artists are leading the way at the Kennedy Center these days. And composer-in-residence Mason Bates is a poster boy for the many ways the center’s president, Deborah Rutter, is moving artists into positions of programming power.

Bates’s KC Jukebox is certainly one of the more varied series that the Kennedy Center offers — you never know what you’re going to get. Last month, it was the men’s a cappella vocal ensemble Chanticleer. On Monday, it was Washington’s own Thievery Corporation, the stylistically eclectic DJ-collective-cum-band, performing with members of the National Symphony Orchestra. The orchestral musicians were playing arrangements by young, hip composers (including Anna Clyne, Teddy Abrams, who energetically conducted the group, and Bates himself), but in the soup of amplified sound, it was hard to hear just what they were doing. The show, however, at least managed to be funky and vivid and vital, rather than watered down like many orchestral pops concerts featuring stars from other genres.

Bates has a lot on his shoulders at the Kennedy Center; he has been its most prominent face for 21st-century music. Fortunately, he brought some experience in this area from his tenure in a similar post with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but he continues, understandably, to develop his presenting skills — some of the shows work better than others. Presenting, after all, is a whole different skill set from actually creating art. 

But the Kennedy Center is eager to let artists develop it. Last week, it announced that the singer Ben Folds would be coming on as an artistic adviser to the NSO for the next three seasons, helping to plan the NSO’s late-night “Declassified” series (which could use some help). Folds joins a group of Kennedy Center artist-advisers and collaborators that includes Jason Moran, Q-Tip, Renée Fleming, Damian Woetzel and Yo-Yo Ma. 

I understand the instinct. The performing arts have increasingly devolved into a field in which artists become cogs in a machine operated by other people, from managers and programmers through to stage directors and conductors. Often, the performers become effectively infantilized: opera singers treated like recalcitrant children who have to be coddled into following the dictums of a stage director without reference to their own experience. Putting artists in the driver’s seat may seem like an ideal corrective.

But bringing artists in as programmers, in capacities they’re not trained in, doesn’t necessarily alter the current model. Indeed, it may reaffirm it. The idea is to make the process more creative, but what you’re actually doing, in many cases, is simply bolstering the system by adding more bosses to it. Who is ensuring that the ideas these new artist-bosses come up with are actually good? Is it any more satisfying for an NSO musician to play in one of Bates’s Jukebox concerts than in the Fortas Chamber Music series? Is it a good thing that Bates is learning to put his own twist on a long-established pops-concert model of bringing in a big-name act to play with an orchestra? 

Maybe it is: Bates has certainly shown a flair for programming and has been given tremendous resources with which to develop it. But I question, in the ongoing promotion of artists, the fetishization of “name” artists over less-known ensemble members. Perhaps there are creative ways to create collaborative models with the forces at hand — a program or series devised by NSO musicians, or members of the Kennedy Center Opera Orchestra. But that would require retooling the model.