Why even bring up the over-hyped discussion of classical music’s current state of health? Because Washington Performing Arts is, it seems to me, trying to find new paths away from a status quo that isn’t working very well. I think that the traditional model of artists-presenting-prescribed-concerts is feeling increasingly dutiful to performers and audiences alike. (I was struck, recently, by the huge response I got to a piece I wrote on artists who take sabbaticals; it seemed the idea struck a nerve, and that many felt the risk of burning out.) Jenny Bilfield, the president of Washington Performing Arts, said to me in an interview last week that artists were sometimes surprised when she encouraged them to come to her with projects they actually wanted to do, rather than the things they were “supposed” to do. And Washington Performing Arts’s upcoming season does seem to reflect some of that interest.
Washington Performing Arts has a tricky line to walk because even those who want innovation also want to be reassured that the biggest and brightest names are coming back. The orchestra season is a good example of how it’s pulling off its balancing act. Given the evident challenges of selling tickets to orchestra performances, it’s not surprising that there are fewer orchestras on its regular orchestra series next year, but they’re good ones: the Concertgebouw with Semyon Bychkov in Mahler’s 5th and a piece by Detlev Glanert; Temirkanov with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic and Nikolai Lugansky in an all-Russian program (Temirkanov evidently not having the same scruples about female executives that he does about female conductors); and Philadelphia, a regular visitor to DC, with Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Louis Lortie playing Chopin’s first concerto and “Petrouchka.”
Of course, there are more orchestras coming, as well: Washington Performing Arts and the Kennedy Center already announced the lineup for the inaugural Shift Festival, the reincarnation of the festival of American orchestras that began as “Spring for Music” at Carnegie Hall. A refresher, for those who have forgotten: DC will also be hearing the Boulder Philharmonic, the North Carolina Symphony, the Atlanta Symphony, and the Knights, in some interesting programming.
And then there are ensemble appearances beyond orchestral limits. The season will see the start of a five-year partnership with the Kronos Quartet that includes a cycle of co-commissions called “Fifty for the Future;” a multi-media puppet performance of an opera based on a graphic novel, “Nufonia Must Fall,” by DJ Kid Koala, performed with the Afiara Quartet, turntables, and other instruments; and the DC iteration of a multi-media visual accompaniment to Messiaen’s “Des Canyons aux Etoiles,” in which the conductor David Robertson will lead the Air Force Band for a free performance at DAR Constitution Hall.
The same kind of balance holds true in the realm of solo and chamber recitals. The big names are there: Daniil Trifonov, Yefim Bronfman, Hilary Hahn, Andras Schiff, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Richard Goode, Murray Perahia, and Anoushka Shankar will all play recitals, as will Joshua Bell (as part of his Kennedy Center residency), the percussionist Colin Currie, and the pianist Igor Levit, whose Hayes series recital in 2015 was cancelled due to illness.
But even some of these big names are appearing in striking combinations. Leonidas Kavakos, the violinist, and the pianist Yuja Wang are giving a joint recital. So are the pianists Leif Ove Andsnes and Marc-André Hamelin, whose performance will include Stravinsky’s own arrangement of “Rite of Spring” for four hands.
On the vocal front, Anne Sofie von Otter is coming here with her contemporary music project with Brooklyn Rider that she recently recorded (singing Bjork, among other selections). Eric Owens and Susanna Phillips will appear in a joint recital curated by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And, as already announced by the Kennedy Center, Joyce DiDonato will star in a concert performance of Handel’s “Ariodante,” with the English Concert (presented jointly by both organizations).
Washington Performing Arts is also keeping a strong focus on its dance, jazz, and world-music offerings: performances include the Dance Theater of Harlem in a new Francesca Harper work choreographed to John Adams’s second string quartet (played by the Attacca Quartet) and Step Afrika! in a new reworking of its piece “The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence.” The singer Cécile McLorin Salvant, the 12-year-old pianist Joey Alexander, Chucho Valdés, Joe Lovano, and Brad Mehldau will all perform. Another focus is gospel; Washington Performing Arts has commissioned new works for the Men, Women and Children of the Gospel Choir from Toshi Reagon and Stanley Thurston.
It’s important to note that not all of these initiatives and programming ideas start with Washington Performing Arts — naturally, a number of them involve tours and co-commissions, thus events that will take place in several different cities. This effectively proves my point about an increasing urge throughout the field to push the envelope. Artists and audiences everywhere are looking for projects that will excite them and keep a sense of vitality in the concert experience. On paper, Washington Performing Arts, in 2016-17, appears to be offering a good number of them.