Large orchestras, such as the National Symphony Orchestra, operate year-round for many millions of dollars. The smaller orchestras presented below offer perhaps five programs a year, with freelance professional players, on a fraction of that budget. Yet their programming tends to be strikingly diverse in comparison with some of their larger brethren, and they all maintain strong education and outreach programs in local schools.
Are orchestras dying? These smaller groups are alive and well, and they are certainly worth the attention of any music lover in the season ahead.
The National Philharmonic
Ever since it changed its name from the Montgomery County Chamber Orchestra, the National Philharmonic has shown its ambitions to compete with the big guys. The largest of the orchestras surveyed here, it performs in the same hall as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and at about the same ticket prices. That’s steep competition, and having to sell so many tickets to a large concert hall also leads to middle-of-the-road programming and a mixture of pops concerts. (This year, one program is devoted to the music of Abba.)
Now in the hands of a new interim CEO — who’s also a violist in the orchestra, and who jumped in with a rescue plan at the height of this summer’s crisis — the orchestra continues to be led artistically by its founder, Piotr Gajewski, a capable if by-the-book conductor. The National Philharmonic also stands out by virtue of having its own chorus, the National Philharmonic Chorale, which means it gets to program more big choral works than other orchestras its size — this year including Richard Einhorn’s oratorio “Voices of Light,” written to accompany Carl Dreyer’s classic silent film “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” and Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis.”
Founded: 2003, merging two groups founded in 1975 and 1983 respectively.
Venue: Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Ln., North Bethesda. strathmore.org.
Number of players: More than 90 are listed on the orchestra’s website, 30 of them tenured members.
Concert season: eight classical programs, two pops concerts and a recital presentation.
Tickets: $29-$79; children younger than 17 admitted free.
Season opener: Sept. 21 and 22 (all Beethoven). nationalphilharmonic.org.
The Annapolis Symphony Orchestra
Pity Annapolis: Culturally overshadowed by Baltimore and Washington, its orchestra remains a well-kept secret for many area music lovers. Still, it’s a jewel of its city, with a track record of enthusiastic music directors and an audience so loyal that several of them wrote me this summer, during the National Philharmonic debacle, to let me know about this other exemplary Maryland orchestra.
The main orchestra in its region, it brings in recognized soloists (this year including Anne Akiko Meyers and Awadagin Pratt) in well-balanced concerts under its popular Spanish music director, José-Luis Novo, who last season surpassed Leon Fleisher, the world-renowned pianist, as the ensemble’s longest-serving music director. Annapolis has been expanding its reach, on the template of larger groups; it’s recently added its own chamber series, as well as a training program for schoolchildren that runs throughout the year, called the Annapolis Symphony Academy.
Venue: Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, 801 Chase St., Annapolis. marylandhall.org.
Number of players: 64.
Concert season: five programs, each played twice, plus a family concert, a pops concert and a four-concert chamber series.
Season opener: Sept. 27-28 (pianist Stewart Goodyear plays Gershwin’s concerto). annapolissymphony.org.
The Maryland Symphony Orchestra
Audiences aren’t supposed to like new music, yet the Maryland Symphony Orchestra opened its season last year with a program of contemporary American music to a full and excited house. With its dynamic female music director, Elizabeth Schulze, and a home base in Hagerstown’s historic Maryland Theatre, a 1915 building that’s reopening this fall after a major renovation adding 30,000 square feet to its footprint, this orchestra is expanding its fan base and staying in the black.
This season sees the pathbreaking guitarist Sharon Isbin coming in April to perform two concertos; some American classics like Florence Price’s 1st Symphony and Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville, Summer of 1915;” and, to open the season, Orff’s rowdy and ever-popular “Carmina Burana.”
Venue: Maryland Theatre, 21 S. Potomac St., Hagerstown. mdtheatre.org.
Number of players: 70-73 per concert.
Concert season: five programs, plus three pops concerts.
Tickets: $14 to $74.
Season opener: Oct. 19-20 (Orff’s “Carmina Burana”). marylandsymphony.org.
The Fairfax Symphony Orchestra
I’ve said before that the Fairfax Symphony would be the jewel of many smaller communities. Its dynamic, capable music director, Christopher Zimmerman, assembles smart and distinctive programs, such as its season opener, called “The Downton Abbey Era.” The program juxtaposes the score to the popular British television show (which is now a feature film, opening this week) with works by British composers of the period, Elgar and Vaughan Williams.
The orchestra has commissioned works, played new pieces and developed collaborative programs with dance companies (this season includes a violin concerto by gifted local composer Jonathan Leshnoff), though like most orchestras they believe themselves under a certain compulsion to maintain broad interest by programming the canonical repertoire. Still Zimmerman, an adroit conductor, keeps verve and interest in each concert.
Venue: George Mason University Center for the Arts, 4400 University Dr., Fairfax. cfa.gmu.edu.
Number of players: 60-65 (as many as 75 for one concert).
Concert season: six concerts, plus a special concert with the orchestra’s All-Stars Youth Orchestra program and an FSO Presents concert featuring soloists or chamber ensembles.
Season opener: Sept. 21 (“The Downton Abbey Era”). fairfaxsymphony.org.
The Alexandria Symphony Orchestra
The oldest of the small orchestras featured here, the ASO has until recently also been one of the least significant. Last season, however, its new music director, James Ross, began sparking a creative reinvention.
Long the head of the visionary conducting program at the University of Maryland, Ross specializes in out-of-the-box thinking — such as joining four movements of four different works into a single “imaginary symphony” on this season’s first concert. Ticket sales have soared, and the orchestra, under Ross and its new executive director George Hanson, are looking forward to more growth and more collaboration with other local ensembles.
Number of players: 60-80.
Concert season: five classical concerts.
Tickets: $5 to $85.
Season opener: Oct. 5-6 (“Imaginary Symphony”). alexsym.org.
The New Orchestra of Washington
NOW — this young ensemble’s preferred acronym — aims to present an alternative to the model of the mainstream orchestra. Take the annual “Dia de los Muertos” concert, in which the group performs Brahms’s German Requiem (with the Choral Arts Society) in the characteristic, ornate white-skull makeup traditional to the Mexican Day of the Dead, playing before an ofrenda at the Mexican Cultural Institute.
Founded by the husband-and-wife team of conductor Alejandro Hernandez-Valdez and pianist Grace Cho, the orchestra sees every concert as a chance “to interact with the community in unique, transformative ways,” Hernandez-Valdez says. NOW is a chamber orchestra, therefore smaller — and more flexible — than the other groups on this list, and it takes advantage of that by performing in a range of venues and doing repertoire ranging from song cycles to a program of composers labeled “minimalist,” from John Adams to Henryk Gorecki.
Venues: seven different spaces around D.C. and Maryland.
Number of players: 12-24.
Concert season: five classical programs and two family concerts a year, most performed twice.
Tickets: Single-ticket prices have yet to be announced.
Next performance: Nov. 9-10 (“Dia de los Muertos”). (The season opener was Sept. 14, with music by Shostakovich, the 20th-century Polish composer Grazyna Bacewicz, and Bernard Herrmann).