The Kennedy Center President Deborah F. Rutter today announced a collaboration with Washington Performing Arts on a new festival, “Shift: A festival of American Orchestras,” in 2017. (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)

Jenny Bilfield, president and CEO of Washington Performing Arts, began talks with Rutter about reviving the “Spring for Music” festival before Rutter took office. (Photo: Paul Emerson)

The Kennedy Center and Washington Performing Arts announced this morning that they are going to collaborate for the first time on a new venture: a festival of North American orchestras, showcasing ensembles from around the country in performance and a range of community events.

Called “Shift: A Festival of American orchestras,” and initially scheduled for a three-year run starting in the spring of 2017, the festival is a continuation, or reimagining, of the Spring for Music festival that ran in New York from 2010 to 2014, which brought orchestras large and small to Carnegie Hall with innovative, unusual programs.

Though “Spring for Music” was adored by orchestras and critics for its spirit of experimentation and democracy — where else could the Detroit Symphony Orchestra play all four Ives symphonies in one evening? — even the $25 ticket price did not bring solid box-office success. Ticket sales lagged, and the festival failed to attract funders that would allow it to continue after its initial grants from the Mellon Foundation ran out.

“I had lots of colleagues, orchestra managers say to me, ‘We can’t let this go,’” says Deborah Rutter, president of the Kennedy Center, speaking by phone from her office on Monday afternoon.

“There was so much good will, so much momentum,” says Jenny Bilfield, president and CEO of Washington Performing Arts, speaking on her cell phone on a train back from New York. “We wanted to do something that would continue it.”

“Shift” will continue the idea of “Spring for Music,” but with some significant changes. The Request for Proposal paper that will be put out next week, enabling orchestras to apply to participate, places equal emphasis on programming and community outreach events. (The announcement was timed to allow orchestras, which plan seasons two to three years in advance, enough time to incorporate proposed programs into their plans.) “Just because you put together the most compelling concert program,” Rutter says, “does not guarantee participation if you do not come with other activities.”

Bilfield adds that “Shift” is about “amplifying a great program with additional points of contract, not only between audience and musicians, but members of different orchestras. Part of this festival will be an exchange between musicians, between institutions in the same market.” Orchestras seldom have an opportunity to work together.
The festival sets a significant tone for collaboration by bringing together two organizations that have traditionally been seen more as competitors. “It’s the first time we have done anything like that, as far as I know,” Rutter says. “They are in the business of presenting orchestras, and by and large we are not. To do a festival of this size, and using these dates at the Kennedy Center, and using the leverage that we have, brings the strengths of these institutions together.”

The togetherness will extend to joint fund-raising efforts for this new project. The Mellon Foundation has awarded “Shift” a grant for $900,000, but $700,000 of that money is matching funds, and the two organizations will work together to raise money earmarked for the festival. The groups already collaborated jointly on the Mellon proposal, and the festival will have its own graphic identity that will be shared in marketing materials from both organizations. The festival will remain an entirely separate entity from Washington Performing Arts’s other presentations of orchestras, though of course Washington Performing Arts will try not to compete with itself. “The festival is in March and April of 2017,” Bilfield says; “we won’t load up March with visiting orchestras.”

For the Kennedy Center, one question is the role of the National Symphony Orchestra. The announcement, coincidentally, comes on the heals of the fourth annual “NSO in your Neighborhood” initiative, which included several events, including a concert in a club, that epitomized the kinds of community activity “Shift” appears to want to target. “We haven’t finally decided that they will participate every year,” Rutter says, “but they will be part of the festival one way or another.”

Embracing everything from contemporary programming to community outreach, the festival concept is already a reflection of the conventional wisdom about the future of American orchestras these days — a picture that looks rather different from the landscape of thirty years ago, when Carnegie Hall itself regularly presented American orchestras of all sizes, and there were not quite as many questions about orchestras’ survival. It remains to be seen whether this vision will be compelling to Washington audiences, but it will certainly represent a new opportunity for the local community to hear a lot of orchestral music. “It’s not like we have a huge flood of visiting orchestras” in Washington, Rutter points out.

Neither woman is particularly concerned about the original “Spring for Music’s” poor showing at the box office. The original New York festival was founded by three powerful individuals in the classical music industry — Tom Morris, director of the Ojai festival and former chief executive of the Cleveland Orchestra; David Foster of Opus 3 Artists; and the eminent publicist Mary Lou Falcone — who had a lot of clout, but not much time to build up an audience. “With a one-week festival mobilized by a mighty trio of individuals,” Bilfield says, “it’s very hard to create the momentum that two organizations with nine-month seasons can bring to it.”

Ticket sales, in any case, are only part of the picture. “We may evaluate the success of this festival in a little bit of a different way,” Rutter says.

“I believe there is a lack of awareness of the scope of programming that takes place by orchestras,” she adds. “In the nation’s capital, where we have opinion leaders of all sorts, we can be a platform showcasing this to the rest of the country. If we can say, ‘Orchestras are great artistic ensembles and they are also great community resources,’ that is a key piece of this. Not that we stand on a pedestal, but that we play these dual roles as artists, and provide great value to the community.”