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Four orchestras in five acts: SHIFT announces 2017 line-up

In January, the Kennedy Center and Washington Performing Arts announced that they were picking up the festival of American orchestras formerly known as Spring for Music and transforming it into a new entity called Shift. On Thursday, they announced the orchestras that have been selected for the inaugural season: the Boulder Philharmonic, the North Carolina Symphony, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and the Knights. And all of them will be playing within a single week: from March 27 through April 2, 2017.

It’s an ambitious project, and a challenge for the box office. Undaunted by the idea that the original Spring for Music festival, at Carnegie Hall, had trouble attracting audiences to unfamiliar ensembles playing unfamiliar work, Shift’s presenters have opted for programs focusing almost exclusively on living American composers, with a healthy dose of multimedia for good measure. They’ve also chosen a wide range of orchestras, with the Atlanta Symphony as the biggest and best-known and the Knights, a chamber orchestra collaborative, as a representative of the new face of large ensembles in the 21st century.

The “immersive festival experience” promised by the organizers will be supported by mini-residencies by each orchestra focusing on different aspects of what one is no longer supposed to call “outreach.” This ranges from the Boulder Philharmonic expanding its stated theme of “Nature and Music” with outdoor performances, including guided musical hikes, to more expected interactions with classes in the DC schools and young musicians by the North Carolina Symphony and the Knights.

For audiences, though, the most important draw is the music; and there will certainly be a lot of new sounds to stimulate the ears. The Atlanta Symphony’s contribution is a 75-minute new commission from Christopher Theofanidis, called “Creation/Creator,” and described as a “theatrical and multimedia oratorio.” The North Carolina Symphony is presenting work by four composers with particular roots in the state, including Mason Bates, who will be the Kennedy Center’s composer-in-residence at that time, as well as the Pulitzer Prize-winner Caroline Shaw, the late Robert Ward, and Sarah Kirkland Snider, whose work is to be premiered in 2015 and includes film projections. [NOTE: An earlier version of this piece referred to “four living composers;" Robert Ward passed away in 2013.]

The Boulder Philharmonic’s “Nature and Music” program also features a multimedia new work, this one a celebration by Stephen Lias of the 100th anniversary of the National Parks (with slides), as well as a mandolin concerto by Jeff Midkiff, a work by Steve Heitzeg, and Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” performed with members of a company called Frequent Fliers Aerial Dance. Only the Knights are offering anything written before the 20th century: they’re flanking new works by Lisa Bielawa and Aaron Jay Kernis with pieces by Brahms and Vivaldi, before ending with a work written collaboratively by the ensemble’s members (including its artistic directors, the brothers Eric and Colin Jacobsen, familiar to local audiences as members of the quartet Brooklyn Rider and Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project).

This is a lot of activity packed into a short span of time; even new-music devotees may not be able to go hear four concerts within five days. But it’s refreshing to see mainstream presenters go out on a limb; and doubly refreshing to see something this unusual try spreading its wings in Washington. There are still nearly two years to go: plenty of time for audiences to limber their ears and prepare their banners.