- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 30, 2000

Programming in local venues for classical music proved to be kind of dull this year, and it's hard to say why that was.

Predictable programming draws bigger audiences and their wallets, both sorely needed by perennially money-losing classical-music organizations. In attempting to corral large donors from the area's booming high-tech industry — well, at least it was booming about six months ago — area music organizations seem loathe to offend the musical tastes of some of the newcomers.

To the extent that a fresh, younger audience is being educated and drawn into music, this is all to the good. However, this approach to programming risks oversimplifying the musical landscape and making the classics seem to a new generation like a batch of Top-40 hits from another century. Are tastes really that shallow?

A case in point was the National Symphony Orchestra's September series of Copland concerts. Beloved as the composer of "Appalachian Spring," "Rodeo," "El Salon Mexico," "Lincoln Portrait" and other popular compositions, Aaron Copland started out as a spiky modernist more closely aligned with the European avant-garde than the indigenous music of his own country. Yet the NSO mounted what was essentially a "greatest hits" program of the composer's works.

The orchestra should have included one of Copland's more challenging pieces, such as his off-the-wall organ concerto, which shows the composer in an entirely different light. The NSO chose the safer course. From a monetary standpoint, who's to say that was wrong? A regular diet of this kind of program, though, moves the orchestra closer to the realm of pops and a dumbing-down of the repertoire.

Perhaps now that NSO Music Director Leonard Slatkin also has become the chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London, he is stretching himself a bit thin, as is the fashion among globe-trotting conductors.

Like the NSO, the Washington Opera also adopted a go-slow approach in its programming during the past year. Why else, for example, would we get two "Figaros" — Gioacchino Rossini's and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's — in the 2000-2001 season? OK, like most opera-goers, I can't get enough of these tuneful musical confections. The company's "The Barber of Seville," which runs through Jan. 25 at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, also is a slapstick delight, even if it is a retread of the 1995-96 production.

But why not try something more biting, such as Kurt Weill's "Threepenny Opera"? Or something seen less frequently, such as Benjamin Britten's magnificently creepy "Peter Grimes"? Or a war horse we haven't seen for eons, such as Beethoven's "Fidelio"? Admittedly, this autumn's magnificent "Parsifal" and, perhaps, the company's upcoming production of Gian Carlo Menotti's "The Consul" — directed by the composer and neatly coinciding with his 90th birthday in 2001 — were both steps in the right direction. Why not more of the same?

A good example of the right thing to do during an opera season happened this past spring at George Mason University's Center for the Arts in Fairfax. The Virginia Opera's fabulous production of George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" was staged there.

Why is this, the greatest of all American operas, not seen more often in this area? Audiences respond enthusiastically whenever a production of it is mounted. Indeed, the Norfolk-based Virginia Opera had to add extra performances here to accommodate the demand for tickets, and those performances, too, sold out. Audiences were able to thrill to a real American story sung convincingly by a brilliant black American cast.

Perhaps with its less-risky schedule, the Washington Opera and Placido Domingo are laying in some monetary insurance against the disruptions that will be caused by the off-again-on-again renovation of the Kennedy Center's Opera House.

Maestro Domingo also is well aware that Washington's opera audiences tend to want fairly conservative fare. Nonetheless, Mr. Domingo has established a rapport with audiences here. They seem to trust him. Perhaps with this good will, both he and the company could begin to dip into corners of the repertoire that don't show up often in Washington. The company will announce its new season shortly after the turn of the new year, and perhaps it will surprise us.

The Washington Performing Arts Society continues to prosper by drawing in big-name artists such as Nigel Kennedy and the Kronos Quartet for one-night stands. Also, the New York-based Young Artists Concert Series regularly brings stellar young talents to the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater for the most reasonably priced recitals in town.

Based primarily at the center's Terrace Theater, Stephen Simon's Washington Chamber Symphony continues to present fascinating, baroque-centric concerts leavened with unusual happenings. They have included this October's concerts featuring local pianist Ann Schein in Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2 and classical saxophonist Gary Louie with a varied program of rarely heard music written for or adapted to an instrument usually heard in jazz combos and big bands.

Maestro Simon gives the audience its money's worth by keeping the orchestra and soloists onstage for multiple encores, a rarity in today's musical environment. One wonders how he does it at today's union scale. But his ensemble's encores often are the highlights of the evening.

Bad things happen in our classical-musical world, too. This year's unpleasantness involves another one of Washington's lesser-known gems, the IN Series concerts. The series formerly was based at Mount Vernon College on Foxhall Road NW, where it mounted its eclectic concerts in the versatile Hand Chapel. Then George Washington University took over Mount Vernon.

After a year, GW evicted the series from Mount Vernon in 2000. Although the university still provides some support, the series mostly fends for itself. It moves among a variety of venues and competes for monetary support.

It would be a real shame if this series — unusual for its literary approach to music — were to disappear from Washington's music scene. We wish it well as it attempts to re-establish itself in what undoubtedly will be a hostile economic environment in the coming year.

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