- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 29, 2001

As this strange and suddenly unpleasant year draws to a close, it's time for our annual review. What began in some ways as a ho-hum opening of the 21st century was suddenly transformed into chaos and horror on September 11.
Musicians have been sorting out what artistic freedom really means in the United States in the aftermath of the attacks, fomented by those who would banish such freedom. Shortly after September 11, the national anthem or a John Philip Sousa march suddenly would appear on the program in concert halls from Washington to Daytona Beach, Fla. where I vacationed in November and attended a concert during which the Moscow State Symphony launched into an encore of "The Stars and Stripes Forever" to thunderous, rhythmic applause. It will be interesting to see if this newfound sense of national pride wends its way into musical programming with more attention paid to American composers
The availability of Washington-area venues devoted to serious music expanded during the past year with the opening of performing arts centers at the University of Maryland and the Northern Virginia Community College's Alexandria campus. Both the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in College Park and the Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall and Arts Center are fine performance spaces.
The Clarice Smith Center officials had an early scare when a tornado ripped through the campus Sept. 24, but the performing arts complex was largely spared. Its dedication gala went ahead a few days later.

At the Kennedy Center, National Symphony Orchestra Music Director Leonard Slatkin offered a surprisingly full house one of the sonic adventures of the 20th century in April Olivier Messiaen's gigantic "Turangalila Symphony." Although Messiaen composed the piece in 1947-48 and it premiered in the United States in 1949, this was the first chance Washington audiences had to hear the masterwork, an extravagant but largely tonal celebration of life and love.
Maestro Slatkin readily acknowledged that the 10-movement work is "not really a symphony." Instead, he described it as "a little like Debussy and Ravel crammed together and on very serious steroids."
Such a performance is, sadly, a rare event. The symphony requires the deployment of a huge orchestra in addition to a pianist of uncommon athleticism who is willing to play for nearly 80 minutes without a beautiful romantic cadenza. It also needs a virtuoso on the "ondes Martenot" the French keyboard version of the theremin, a weird electronic instrument most frequently heard in the soundtracks of 1950s outer space movies such as "The Day the Earth Stood Still."
Actually, the NSO was loaded with presents for adventurous concertgoers last spring. In addition to the Messiaen, it also performed Charles Ives' rarely heard Fourth Symphony and Benjamin Britten's magnificent "War Requiem." The Ives is a kaleidoscope of American sounds, shot through with popular band, college and folk tunes washed over by other orchestral textures. It is eccentric, difficult and unusual, but Mr. Slatkin's nuanced approach brought out the subtleties of the work.
The orchestra's presentation of Britten's "War Requiem" also was good to hear, although less successful. The work is certainly the greatest choral masterpiece to have emerged in the 20th century. However, perhaps worn out by its exertions for the Messiaen and the Ives, the NSO performed occasionally on the flaccid side in the requiem.
Musical modernism continued in the fall with the arrival of "More Drums Along the Potomac," an NSO festival featuring Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie. Miss Glennie was at the peak of her entertaining powers for the festival, drawing quite a few of the younger listeners the NSO craves, but, surprisingly, also pulling in plenty of thrill-seeking old-timers.
The NSO lost its president and chief operating officer in September when Robert Jones resigned. Mr. Jones, in his job since February 1998, simultaneously served as vice president of music for the Kennedy Center. Michael Kaiser, the new president of the Kennedy Center, announced he would take over Mr. Jones' duties and administer the orchestra.

At the Washington Opera, the fall stanza proved more impressive than the spring offerings. The company mounted a nicely done but worn-out production of Gian Carlo Menotti's "The Consul" in January and the umpteenth area performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" in March. This production was delightful in the singing but a bit repellent in its verismo approach to Mozart's comedy. The company followed with an equally dark interpretation of "Cosi Fan Tutte" in the fall. Although we all love Mozart, the company would do us a favor by giving us a rest from his music for a while.
Fortunately, the company has begun to sample other parts of the repertoire. Soprano Alessandra Marc starred in a fine version of Giacomo Puccini's "Turandot" last spring, although there were anxious moments as the rather substantial soprano came down a long and steep staircase. The company also mounted a terrific production of Giuseppe Verdi's "Don Carlo" last spring and began the fall with a riotous, albeit controversial, production of Jacques Offenbach's "Tales of Hoffmann." The singing, particularly by Denyce Graves and Alan Held, was wonderfully energetic, and the sets were fantastic. One intriguing note about this production: On opening night, a prop was accidentally kicked into the orchestra pit and injured one of the players. Ever since, fabric netting has covered the pit with a cutout for the conductor.
The Washington Opera also mounted excellent new productions of Carlisle Floyd's "Of Mice and Men" and Puccini's "Madama Butterfly." Mr. Floyd's adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel is an astringent blending of socialist realism and modern sensibilities. Visually striking, the Washington Opera's bleak new production set a new standard for understated modernism. It brilliantly conjoins Depression-era cues to apocalyptic, post-nuclear-holocaust fears. The entire production was sensational, giving lie to the notion that Americans can't write grand opera.
Imported from Poland, the company's recent production of "Madama Butterfly" was re-imagined. It largely eliminated the extravagant billowing silks and tapestries favored by other directors and replaced the context with an impressionistic, kabuki-style production of bold colors and spare backdrops. In the title role, soprano Veronica Villaroel probably was as good as we've ever seen her here.
The Washington Opera isn't the only way to see opera in the metropolitan area. The struggling In Series, currently platooning between Arlington's Clark Street Playhouse and the Czech Embassy, presents one or two crafty opera "updates" a season, in addition to the occasional zarzuela. The In Series, not immune to Washington's Mozart mania, weighed in this past September with a reprise of its popular "Marriage of Figaro: The Las Vegas Version" and will return in January with its "Don Giovanni (of Long Island)," a la TV's "The Sopranos."


The Wolf Trap Opera Company offered three operas this past summer at the Barns and at the Filene Center. The highlight was yet another production of "The Marriage of Figaro," but this one was funnier and a lot more sprightly than the Washington Opera's offering. This production was most notable for the appearance of mezzo-soprano Lauren Curnow as the scheming Marcellina. As in an earlier appearance in Wolf Trap's NSO Gilbert and Sullivan night, her rubbery facial expressions belied a surprisingly creamy and expressive vocal instrument. This is a young talent to watch.
Washington's depressing classical radio daze continued in 2001, with the increasingly brain-dead WGMS-FM (103.5) continuing its madcap pursuit of the classical bubble-gum championship by cutting loose its years-long association with the Texaco-Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on Saturday afternoons. This station is a shadow of its former robust self, but so is the rest of Washington radio. Fortunately, WETA-FM (90.9), perhaps to atone for its own sin of replacing its drive-time morning classical show with National Public Radio's news readers and ozone-hole doomsayers, has picked up the Met broadcasts, saving us from cultural Armageddon.
This year drew to a close in the minor key with the death of Paul Hume, longtime area musician and music critic. In the late 1960s, I had the occasionally dubious pleasure of studying "Music and Literature" with Mr. Hume, a course this irascible but witty character and Georgetown University Glee Club director offered through the university's fine arts department. His commentary and reviews combined an affection for the local music scene with an insistence on maintaining the highest musical standards. He also strove to educate readers on the finer points of musical knowledge. With his passing, an era ends in Washington classical music, a decades-long period that marked the region's musical growth and increasing artistic maturity.

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