A festival of American orchestras, celebrating the variety and richness of American music, is a great idea on paper. But in a field that’s stereotypically thought of as European, in which the American component always seems to be vying, like a younger sibling, for equal time and attention, it’s an open question whether audiences are as interested as I am. With its Shift Festival this spring, the Kennedy Center and Washington Performing Arts are planning to find out.
The idea isn’t new. When the Spring for Music festival was launched at Carnegie Hall several years ago, bringing orchestras from across the United States to play a lot of American work, with a flat ticket price of a mere $25, it drew a lot of attention — but not, alas, enough ticket buyers to keep the festival going beyond the four years originally planned. The Kennedy Center and WPA decided that, with the combined muscle of their two organizations and a clearer mandate of bringing a cross-section of American work to America’s capital, they could give it a better shot, and thus have re-created the festival, with a new name and concept but the same $25 price.
So get ready for a solid week of varied orchestral music and experiences: an evening-long multimedia oratorio from the Atlanta Symphony; a new piece that the Brooklyn chamber ensemble the Knights wrote collaboratively for themselves; a nature walk with the Boulder Philharmonic; an array of new music from the North Carolina Symphony. In a world where “visiting orchestras” often seems to be equated with “large groups of people from Europe or Philadelphia playing works from the canon,” and in which timid mainstream classical-music presenters too often seem wary of going out on a limb, I’m eager to see how Shift plays out.
The Shift Festival is March 27 to April 2, with the Boulder Philharmonic on March 28, the North Carolina Symphony on March 29, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra on March 31 and the Knights on April 1, all in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Tickets to everything are $25.
When baroque opera comes to Washington, it’s a major event. This spring, three major local presenters — the Kennedy Center, Washington Performing Arts and Vocal Arts D.C. — are joining forces to bring Joyce DiDonato to town in the title role of Handel’s “Ariodante,” supported by the conductor Harry Bicket, a noted early-music specialist, and the English Concert. At the other end of the spectrum are two new American works at the Washington National Opera: “Dead Man Walking,” which put the composer Jake Heggie on the map and remains one of the most-performed contemporary American operas, and “Champion,” a jazz opera by Terence Blanchard.
It’s in the nature of a recital to demand that we pick just one — just one featured artist with whom to spend an evening. But it’s in the nature of a music season to produce a cornucopia of such choices: masters vying for our attention. Some of the highlights of the solo calendar this spring include Daniil Trifonov , the brilliant Russian-born pianist who’s shaping up to be one of the hottest properties for serious music lovers, April 4 at the Kennedy Center; the soprano Anne Schwanewilms , bringing her powerful voice to more intimate music for Vocal Arts D.C. on April 20 at the University of D.C.’s Theater Arts auditorium with Malcolm Martineau; and Steven Isserlis, the inventive cellist, coming with Connie Shih to the Library of Congress on April 21. Some recitals, of course, don’t require us to choose — such as the duo appearance of two star soloists, Leif Ove Andsnes and Marc-André Hamelin , playing together in works for two pianos and four hands May 1 at the Kennedy Center.
Read more from the Spring Arts Preview: