- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 28, 2002

In Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities," it is "the best of times and the worst of times." So it is in musical Washington as we draw the final curtain on the tableaux of a troubled 2002.

Hard hit, in some cases staggered, by the unpredictable aftermath of September 11, 2001, area music organizations struggled bravely to fill large concert halls and other venues early in the new calendar year. Fortunately, by the beginning of the new fall season, many ensembles had re-established equilibrium, but not all of them managed to survive.

Probably the worst musical event of the year was the sudden, catastrophic collapse of the Washington Chamber Symphony. Established more than two decades ago as the Handel Festival Orchestra, the Chamber Symphony under Music Director Stephen Simon watched its repertoire grow and mature over the years. The organization supported numerous chamber and children's concerts, frequently highlighting unusual music and unusual instruments.

World-premiere pieces were not uncommon, and most, but not all, of the ensemble's concerts were well-attended, particularly those held in the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater.

Then virtually without warning, the symphony, mired deeply and hopelessly in debt, ceased to exist in July. Understandably, no one in the organization was much interested in absorbing the blame for the catastrophe. During turbulent times like this, fiscal and jurisdictional problems bubble to the surface in any organization, but this implosion was ugly.

A batch of fine musicians were out of a fair bit of work they had been counting on, and faithful season subscribers were left holding the bag with considerably lighter wallets and nothing to show for their largesse. The whole nasty scene was reminiscent of the Colts football team sneaking out of Baltimore in 1984 under cover of darkness as it decamped to Indianapolis. It just didn't feel right.

The fallout from a musical death doesn't stop with underemployed musicians and costly dark nights at the Kennedy Center and elsewhere. The "magic maestro," as Mr. Simon was known to area children who frequented the orchestra's young people's concerts, also mounted a popular annual Christmas show in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. These concerts provided a rare opportunity for a few of the area's best amateur music troupes to join an augmented chamber symphony to sing in and ring in the treasured December holidays.

Over the years, members of the Georgetown Chorale, the Holton Arms Bell Choir, the St. Patrick's School Children's Choir, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and others reveled in their annual invitational gig on one of the world's best-known performing-arts stages. Now that, too, is gone. The whole Washington Chamber Symphony mess was never adequately explained.

Washington's vast horde of underemployed lawyers probably has a little something to do with that. In the end, however, it was the usual story.

Audiences were down, the money ran out, and no one in the organization seemed able or willing to rise to the occasion. As a result, an important component of Washington's musical richness is gone, probably forever.

Still here, fortunately, but often on life support, is an entirely different kind of organization, Washington's "In" Series of concerts. Unique in the metro area, the series specializes in cabaret performances with a strongly literary element, women's music, updated classic operettas and light opera and Hispanic classical music particularly zarzuela.

Ensconced for many years on the campus of Mount Vernon College and frequently mounting its performances at the school's Hand Chapel, the series was bounced by a shortsighted George Washington University when it took over the smaller school. Performances have become fugitive things since then, although it has been fun to find the troupe in surprising new venues recently, including Arlington's Clark Street Theater, the auditorium in the National Museum for Women in the Arts and the public spaces of various embassies.

Nonetheless, money obviously is tight for the "In" Series, not to mention the logistical nightmare of constantly having to seek out and negotiate for new venues that will support these kinds of productions. Consequently, series performances have taken on a more threadbare look, and publicity can be sporadic. Nevertheless, the good music and musicianship continue, and the series seems to be supported by a loyal if small band of patrons. Let's lift a cup of holiday cheer, hoping the series survives for yet another season and find some new angels with deep pockets.

While we're on the topic of departures and near-death musical experiences, another popular classical music fixture has exited from Washington's musical life veteran morning drive-time announcer Dennis Owens of WGMS-FM. Mr. Owens' dulcet tones, mock heroics, "punderful" repartee, quick wit and droll humor were much appreciated by harried Washington commuters seeking the solace of classical music during each morning's ritual gridlock as they awaited the clearing of multiple jackknifed tractor-trailers carrying hazardous materials on Interstate 270. Mr. Owens certainly is entitled to a Lifetime Achievement Award as Washington's best and funniest classical music announcer.

He is, of course, very much alive and merely retired. A station source assures us that he'll be back on occasion, and he no doubt will remain very much in demand outside radio as a master of ceremonies for special events. Meanwhile, his morning-drive successor, James Bartel, is doing a nice job of maintaining the franchise at a station that has had its musical ups and downs. Renee Chaney's miraculously sensuous voice also will continue to anchor midmorning festivities. Add this to the regular plugs WGMS is getting from its sister station, all-news WTOP, and classical music may yet have a future on the FM dial.

On the whole, WGMS has weaned itself over the past couple of years from its seemingly fatal attraction to the "1812 Overture" in all its permutations, and this is the most welcome development since WETA-FM abandoned early-morning classical programming in favor of the usual public-radio public-affairs gabfest of sanctimonious left-wing gasbags. Lest we get too churlish, however, let's note that WETA did pick up the classical slack a year ago by taking over the Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera broadcasts that had been jettisoned by WGMS. So it goes.

Meanwhile, back at the live classical music scene, 2002 managed to have its triumphs. In many ways, the best musical performance of the year was the Wolf Trap Opera Company's August production of Kurt Weill's rarely seen 1940s opera "Street Scene." Amazingly like Leonard Bernstein's more famous Broadway show "West Side Story," which was to follow it a few years later, Mr. Weill's opera is a slice-of-life drama set in New York's teeming tenements, and its focal point is a multiethnic romance that is not going to work.

Gritty and in-your-face but shot through with great tunes and imaginative orchestration, this is an all-American work by an exiled German composer whose masterpiece, "The Threepenny Opera," should be much better known in U.S. opera houses than it is.

We owe the Wolf Trap Opera a debt of gratitude for daring to mount such an untested and expensive production in the huge Filene Center, where it did not, predictably, sell out. A hat tip to the troupe as well for presenting Handel's almost-never-performed "Xerxes" in July in the more intimate setting of the Barns. Not only does such unconventional programming increase the metropolitan area's musical riches, it also gives the company's up-and-coming young performers a chance to stretch their wings and fly in productions they might not encounter in larger venues later in their careers.

Perhaps their expertise will induce companies such as the Washington Opera, the San Francisco Opera, the Lyric Opera and perhaps even the Met to take a chance with such productions in the future, knowing they will have first-rate singers with which to fill the difficult roles. An extra bonus, by the way, of Wolf Trap's production of "Xerxes" was the opportunity to see and hear the sensational male soprano Michael Maniaci in the title role. And yes, we did say male soprano, not countertenor.

A countertenor, occasionally called a sopranist, is actually a specially trained baritone who can achieve a falsetto that approximates a real soprano or mezzo-soprano voice. (The best-known example of this musical effect is the swan's song in Orff's "Carmina Burana.") Mr. Maniaci's voice never changed after adolescence, so his soprano voice is the real deal. He almost certainly has a major career ahead singing baroque opera roles that traditionally went to castrati a practice that is in little fashion these days. Remember, you saw him first at Wolf Trap in the best performance of the year by a male soprano.

While we're discussing musical high points, it's certainly time to note that the Washington Opera also added to its laurels this fall with magical productions of Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" and Mozart's infrequently performed "Idomeneo."

We called soprano Elizabeth Futral a "knockout" in the former opera's title role, and we see no reason to reassess that observation. Her rendition of Lucia's famous "mad scene" was without parallel, an exaltation of vocal aerobatics and dead-on precision all shaped with a pristine delicacy that defies adequate description in prose. If Mr. Maniaci's "Xerxes" was a "best of" for the Wolf Trap Opera Company, Miss Futral's definitive Lucia certainly wins the brass ring for Washington's senior operatic circuit. Breathtaking. While we're at it, "Lucia's" spectacular second-act sextet, "Chi mi frena in tal momento" ("What holds me back in such a moment?") was a stunner as well. Nothing can hold us back, either.

But wait, there's more. The company's production of "Idomeneo" was not content to take a back seat to "Lucia." It didn't hurt to have Placido Domingo in the title role, of course. The role of Idomeneo was unusual for him, being only one among several vocal equals in the opera, with each of the principals getting nearly the same amount of time in the solo spotlight. Furthermore, the part of Idomeneo is fairly low for a tenor.

Mr. Domingo handled it with ease, his voice serving to provide an unaccustomed ballast for the ensembles, which draw primarily on the female voice. It was interesting to see him graciously add gravitas to his cast of younger singers, all of whom rose to the challenge.

"Idomeneo" also sparkled with the addition of Russian soprano Anna Netrebko in the role of Ilia. Miss Netrebko adds beauty, delicacy and grace to every role she sings and is fast becoming Washington's operatic sweetheart.

This "Idomeneo" proved to be yet another glorious Washington Opera performance.

As Washingtonians ring in the New Year, the Washington Opera will contemplate its yearlong exile from the Kennedy Center Opera house with some trepidation. The company has reason to be nervous about its temporary shift to Constitution Hall while its home undergoes a desperately needed renovation. An untested venue for the opera often derided for its drafty acoustics the building will prove a challenge. We hope decent ticket sales for this fall's classy productions will help the company ride out any budgetary rough spots this relocation may cause.

When it comes to smaller venues, the prize for best chamber music event of 2002 has to go to the American String Quartet's dynamic concert this past October in the National Academy of Science's phenomenal auditorium. Top pick during this concert was the quartet's performance of Dmitri Shostakovich's viciously demanding Quartet No. 8 (Opus 110).

The quartet levitated Shostakovich's music to an entirely different plane, but it wasn't just the ensemble that took it there. The soloists were aided by one of the best listening rooms in the District, and they were inspired by an intelligent, appreciative audience that bonded viscerally with the performers. Were Shostakovich alive to hear this performance, he would have felt redeemed and vindicated for all his suffering under Stalin's murderous regime. One never forgets redemptive musical moments like this.

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