Washington Performing Arts has made a point, in recent years, of championing new kinds of projects and new works. But its 51st season, announced Tuesday, does a fine job of balancing intriguing contemporary projects — like a song cycle, “The Blue Hour,” written collaboratively for Luciana Souza by five female composers, including the Pulitzer Prize-winner Caroline Shaw — with magisterial traditional performers.
Orchestras, for instance, are roaring back, with no fewer than five visiting orchestras in addition to the four that will play in the second year of the Shift Festival. The Chicago Symphony with Riccardo Muti; the Los Angeles Philharmonic with Gustavo Dudamel (playing a new work by Dudamel’s predecessor, Esa-Pekka Salonen); and the Mariinsky Orchestra with Valery Gergiev and the stellar pianist Daniil Trifonov, playing his own piano concerto, are all coming in 2017-18.
As for pianists: Evgeny Kissin will return after a two-year U.S. hiatus; the newly-minted Kennedy Center honoree Martha Argerich will perform twice — once with the Orchestra de Santa Cecelia, a co-presentation already announced by the Kennedy Center, and once with Itzhak Perlman; Mitsuko Uchida will play an all-Schubert recital; and Boris Berezovsky will make his first solo Washington Performing Arts appearance, after illness forced him to cancel a scheduled Hayes series debut in 2003-04. And the violinist Maxim Vengerov, who has focused more on conducting in recent years, will return in a virtuoso recital.
But even some of these orchestra concerts exemplify the more artist-driven approach that has characterized Washington Performing Arts under Jenny Bilfield, its president and CEO. The Trifonov and Salonen pieces, for example, present two familiar performers in a different guise, as composers. And some other projects — like “The Blue Hour” or the multimedia work “A Chinese Home” by Wu Man and the Kronos Quartet (currently in the midst of a five-year collaboration with Washington Performing Arts), telling the story of centuries of Chinese history through music of many composers around a house that was built in China and then reassembled in the U.S. — have arisen as a result of ongoing conversations with artists.
“We’re finding a great deal of receptivity to thinking creatively and long-term,” Bilfield said in a telephone conversation last week. “There are now artists we have a habit of working with, and have different projects in the pipeline. Managers, too, know what topics and directions will excite us. Everyone wants to serve art and artists in more intimate ways. That’s very much on our mind.”
One example of an ongoing relationship is the great American composer Steve Reich, who will come to D.C. with the Signal ensemble for a performance of his seminal “Clapping Music” as well as the East Coast premiere of his recent work “Runner” — in a performance that will mark Washington Performing Arts’ first collaboration with the Library of Congress. (Tickets, therefore, will be free.) Another, of a very different kind, is a three-part series exploring ways that people listen to music, carried out in conversations between the jazz pianist Aaron Diehl (who will also have his own performance) and the director of special projects at Washington Performing Arts, playwright Murray Horwitz.
Among rising young artists, two noteworthy groups are making Washington Performing Arts debuts: the duo piano team Anderson and Roe, who performed with flair at the National Gallery last fall, and the PUBLIQuartet, whom Stephen Colbert invited to improvise live on national television for 90 minutes during the final presidential debate. Another young and multifaceted artist, Conrad Tao, will give a piano recital, but also contributes a new commission to be performed by the violinist Paul Huang on a recital of his own. And even standbys will offer themselves in a new light: longtime duo partners Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax will be joined by Leonidas Kavakos in a program of trios.
As for the Shift Festival: This year’s orchestras — as previously announced — are the Fort Worth Symphony under Miguel Harth-Bedoya, the Indianapolis Symphony with cellist Alisa Weilerstein, the Albany Symphony, and the National Symphony Orchestra. This year’s crop of orchestras, Bilfield says, “focused on visual components,” while next year’s focus is more on soloists — including Dmitri Hvorostovsky with the National Symphony Orchestra. While administrators are still analyzing data from this year’s festival, Bilfield feels generally positive. “The price point made a difference,” she says of the $25 ticket. “The word of mouth made a difference. We continue to look at what excited people.”