- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 5, 2003

The Kennedy Center's 2003-2004 season promises a new chapter in President Michael M. Kaiser's re-imagining of the District's cultural hub.
Yesterday in the center's Terrace Theater, Mr. Kaiser, marking his second full season at the helm, announced the new schedule. The schedule has his fingerprints all over it: major festivals anchored by key arts figures, cross-disciplinary programs, shows both esoteric and populist in nature.
Some of the announced events extend themes begun by Mr. Kaiser, such as the Prelude Festival. Introduced last year, the festival once again opens the season Labor Day weekend with an array of performances showcasing local arts groups.
"The value of any arts organization must be judged by the quality of its programming," Mr. Kaiser said during his presentation.
Patrons will judge for themselves in the coming months, but based on Mr. Kaiser's track record as an arts manager, plus the success both commercial and artistic of last year's Sondheim Festival, audiences have reason for optimism.
This year, the center's theatrical branch hopes to repeat the success of last year's Sondheim revivals with a Tennessee Williams festival, if one may use that word in connection with the playwright's dramas of frustration, disappointment, repression and defeat.
"Tennessee Williams Explored" offers new productions of the perpetually bummed-out Southern dramatist's classics, including "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "The Glass Menagerie" and "A Streetcar Named Desire," which kicks things off on April 27, 2004.
The series also includes "Five by Tenn," five one-act plays, three of which will be world premieres.
Last year's Sondheim Festival is a tough act to follow Entertainment Weekly magazine named it 2002's theatrical highlight.
The upcoming season will feature one last tip of the cap to Sondheim with his "Bounce," opening in Washington after its Chicago premiere. The production, Mr. Kaiser noted, originally was commissioned by the Kennedy Center a decade earlier.
Rounding out the center's theatrical lineup is "The Producers," the winner of 12 Tony awards, which will make its Washington debut in June 2004.
Among the more ambitious projects slated for 2003-2004 are a festival dedicated to the French arts and a Composer Portraits series. The former features the U.S. debut of Opera Comique, a French musical comedy company, plus a series of performances by soprano Renee Fleming.
The composer series, lectures with music, includes biographies of Tchaikovsky and Beethoven.
Traveling National Symphony Orchestra Music Director Leonard Slatkin appeared, via videotape, to promote the orchestra's upcoming schedule. Mr. Slatkin trumpeted a series of renowned conductors coming to the center, from a returning Lorin Maazel to Kent Nagano's Kennedy Center debut. The season also includes the U.S. premiere of "Reading the Scripts," a reinterpretation of Brahms' "A German Requiem" by Wolfgang Rihm and led by Mr. Nagano.
Dance, a subject close to Mr. Kaiser's cultural heart, will be highlighted by the return of the New York City Ballet after a more than 15-year absence. Mr. Kaiser noted that the program, to run in 2004, will honor the 100th birthday of dance pioneer George Balanchine, who created the New York City Ballet.
The Hamburg Ballet also will make its Kennedy Center debut in 2004.
On the jazz front, Artistic Director Billy Taylor oversees a number of programs from the Louis Armstrong Legacy Singers Series to the continuation of the new KC Jazz Club.
C. Ulrich Bader, the NSO's artistic administrator, understands the relationship between ticket sales and artistic expression that the center must maintain.
"We are working in the entertainment business. We depend on the feedback of the audience," Mr. Bader said. "You have to have a balance."
Kennedy Center Chairman James A. Johnson said the schedule offers "something for everyone who has an openness to the arts." That could explain the planned production of "The Donkey Show," described as a disco interpretation of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
"We want to send an unmistakable message that the institution belongs to all Americans," Mr. Johnson said.
Mr. Kaiser makes no apologies for his populist streak. He didn't even offer an ironic wink while announcing a "singalong" program built around "The Wizard of Oz" slated for the Prelude Festival.
Later, Mr. Kaiser said it would be wrong to assume that shows like the singalong will perform any better than a supposedly highbrow NSO concert.
In fact, Mr. Kaiser said, patrons at recent Kennedy Center open houses showed the most enthusiasm for NSO events.
"One has to be careful not to generalize" about audience tastes, he said.
He also proudly boasted of a recent Millennium Stage free concert featuring the Four Tops that drew 8,000 patrons.
"That's a really important element of what we do," he said.

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