- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 14, 2002

September historically has been the most celebratory of months for the performing arts in Washington. As the children are heading back to school, the area's main concert halls, theaters and miscellaneous stages awaken after a summer slumber and begin to pulsate with the new season's heady mix of local and world premieres, old favorites and revivals.
Not that summer is devoid of artistic interest witness the Kennedy Center's recent, outstanding Sondheim Celebration but autumn is when things really begin to perk up.
This fall is different, however, and it's no mystery why. Last year's season was just getting under way when September 11's barbarism seared its way permanently into the local and national consciousness, placing a tinge of sadness, dread and melancholy, conscious or unconscious, into the way we heard each and every musical performance in the following year. What we have lost is real and palpable, and great music will remind us of it and of what we have yet to endure.
This year, because of the war and recession, numerous artistic budgets have been trimmed and once-high expectations have been reduced somewhat, although a cheerful face remains.
One missing face, however, is that of Stephen Simon, the "magic maestro" of the sprightly Washington Chamber Symphony. His organization's swift and seemingly permanent demise at the tail end of July caught everyone by surprise and revealed just how precariously balanced our uncommonly rich artistic environment can be sometimes when major donors suddenly find themselves strapped financially.
Fortunately, almost everyone else in the classical music firmament is back this fall. There is a great desire to return to what passes for normalcy. With a stiff upper lip and a great deal of hope, the 2002-2003 season is warily, but decisively, getting under way. Here are some of the young season's best bets:
The National Symphony Orchestra's Prelude Series of concerts is under way already, and its official season revs up Sept. 18 with a gala opening concert at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall featuring cellist Yo-Yo Ma and soprano Diana Damrau.
The following night, series concerts begin in earnest as the dynamic duo of spunky violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and elegant cellist Lynn Harrell appear in a concert featuring Brahms' Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 102, and Rimsky-Korsakov's lively Capriccio espagnol, Op. 34. A big plus for those attending this concert will be a free "AfterWords" discussion of the evening's music with NSO Music Director Leonard Slatkin and the artists directly following the program.
Other NSO highlights this fall will be performances of American composer William Schuman's infrequently heard 8th Symphony (Oct. 10 through 12) and the world premiere of Cindy McTee's Symphony No. 1 (Oct. 24 through 26). For tickets and information on these and other NSO concerts, call the Kennedy Center box office at 202/467-4600.
Across the river, one of the more interesting groups this year is the Arlington Symphony Orchestra, which performs at Northern Virginia Community College's new Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall and Arts Center, on the Alexandria campus. The Arlington ensemble's opening concert, "Exuberant Giants," features an eclectic mix of Beethoven's 5th Symphony, Charles Ives' rollicking "Variations on 'America,'" and Rachmaninoff's heartbreaking and formidable Piano Concerto No. 3, featuring Santiago Rodriguez, perhaps the area's most talented piano soloist (Sept. 28). For tickets and information, call 703/528-1817.
Opera is alive and well, in spite of last season's spotty post-September 11 attendance. The Washington Opera splits its season in two this time around, offering four operas this fall at the Kennedy Center Opera House and three more in the spring in a reconfigured DAR Constitution Hall.
The reason for the move, of course, is that the long-awaited Opera House renovation, which is scheduled to begin in January and conclude a year later. If the architects and acousticians do half as well as they did in the Concert Hall a few seasons back, the renovated Opera House soon could prove to be one of the world's most spectacular performing-arts venues.
Meanwhile, Placido Domingo has put together a conservative but interesting transition season. Fall festivities begin with performances of Donizetti's gorgeous bel canto opera "Lucia di Lammermoor" featuring acclaimed soprano Elizabeth Futral in the title role and Mexican tenor Alfredo Portillo as her secret lover, Edgardo. These performances of "Lucia" are directed by internationally acclaimed stage and screen actress Marthe Keller and begin Sept. 14.
The company's production of Puccini's beloved "La Boheme" opens its month-long run Sept. 21, platooning two casts of young soloists. The fall stanza wraps up with performances of Samuel Barber's "Vanessa," featuring the company debut of famed soprano Kiri Te Kanawa in the title role (opening Oct. 19); and maestro Domingo himself in Mozart's "Idomeneo" (opening Nov. 2), singing opposite exquisite Russian soprano Anna Netrebko. Claire Gibault conducts. For tickets and information, call 202/295-2400.
Increasingly, the Washington Opera is getting competition from Washington's fringes. This year's chief competitor is the up-and-coming Baltimore Opera, whose short but fascinating list of operas includes moneymaking favorites such as "Rigoletto," "Die Fledermaus" and "Madama Butterfly," but also offers two operas we wish we would get to see here: Leo Delibes' rarely performed and ravishing "Lakme" (Oct. 5 through 13) and Dmitri Shostakovich's "Lady Macbeth of Mtensk" (Feb. 22 through March 2).
All performances are at Baltimore's Lyric Opera House. Inquisitive operagoers should consider having dinner out in Baltimore, attending the opera and booking a hotel room for the night. For tickets and information call 410/727-6000 or surf to www.baltimoreopera.com.
The Virginia Opera is another smaller company that shouldn't be ignored. Based in Norfolk, it opens its productions there, then carries them to Richmond and thence to George Mason University's Center for the Arts in Fairfax. This company's Fairfax performances of Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" a few years back were so oversubscribed that the company had to book a second weekend at the center (which makes us wonder why the Washington Opera shouldn't mount this classic in a city that would appreciate it at least as much).
In any event, the Virginia Opera will bring some, but not all, of its operas this season to George Mason. Best bets are Wagner's "Die Walkure" (Oct. 11 and 13), and Johann Strauss' "Die Fledermaus," which will run April 4 through 6. For tickets and information, call 703/993-2787.
Inexplicably, the company is performing Umberto Giordano's lovely "Andrea Chenier" in Norfolk and Richmond, commencing in January, but is not bringing it up to Fairfax. Bad move.
Zarzuela fans will be pleased that the eclectic "IN" Series of concerts and theatrical events is still alive. Zarzuela is popular Spanish opera, a little like a marriage between opera and Broadway. This season, the series will reprise last year's evening of zarzuela highlights, "Encore Zarzuela 2002" at the Oyster Bilingual School, 2801 Calvert St. NW, three blocks from the Woodley Park/Zoo Metro stop (Oct. 11 through 19).
The series also will present the first staged Washington production of Ernesto Lecuona's "Maria La O" at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW (Dec. 1 through 13). Lecuona is sometimes regarded as Cuba's Gershwin, and this updated two-act classic should be a winner. For tickets and information, call 202/237-9834 or 9835.
The Washington Concert Opera which stages rarely performed classic works at great ticket prices but without the sets is back for another season at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, the first under the baton of new artistic director Antony Walker.
The company will perform Berlioz's sumptuous "Beatrice et Benedict," an opera possibly never heard in its entirety in Washington (Feb. 26). Based on Shakespeare's play "Much Ado About Nothing," Berlioz's 1862 work will be sung in French with English surtitles and will feature mezzo-soprano Theodora Hanslowe.
Also on tap, June 10, will be a performance of one of Verdi's lesser-known works, "Stiffelio." A complete performing version of this opera, which was much-censored because of its anti-clerical subject matter, was uncovered only in 1960. It didn't receive an uncensored performance in Italy until 1968. This performance will feature soprano Christine Goerke. For tickets and information, call 202/364-5826 after Oct. 15 or visit www.concertopera.org.
In addition to the many concert and opera series offered throughout the area, the Washington Performing Arts Society offers a full season of one- or two-night stands by an incredible array of international artists.
Best bets this season are: mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli (if she shows up), with period instrument ensemble Le Musiche Nove Sept. 25; violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter with pianist Lambert Orkis Oct. 19; the always intriguing King's Singers in their first appearance with pianist Emanuel Ax Nov. 3; Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in its first Washington appearance in 10 years (March 3 and 4); and the area's own fantastic mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves (March 29). All these performances will take place at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.
For the adventurous, the WPAS' co-commissioned world premiere of local composer Bob Massey and local filmmaker David Wilson's "The Nitrate Hymnal" will take place Jan. 24 and 25 at the George Washington Masonic National Memorial Auditorium in Alexandria.

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