- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 1, 2004

The year 2003 was a time of transition for Washington’s classical music scene.The Washington Opera hunkered down in Constitution Hall to wait out the renovation of the Kennedy Center’s Opera House. The 25th anniversary edition of the William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival was successfully held for the first time in its new permanent venue, the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland. A variety of younger artists made their mark in a sometimes moribund cultural milieu that is in need of serious updating. And new works started entering the area’s repertoire with the promise of more.

Generation X got the year off to an interesting start last January when the Washington Performing Arts Society (WPAS) co-commissioned “The Nitrate Hymnal,” a new “post-punk” multimedia opera. A collaboration between Bethesda composer-librettist Bob Massey and independent filmmaker David Wilson, “The Nitrate Hymnal” combined opera singers and a chamber orchestra with video and film projections. Largely minimalist in its approach, the opera nonetheless tried — with some success — to draw younger listeners to music with more intellectual heft than is generally found on the nightclub circuit, but with less grandiosity than 19th-century romantic opera.

The younger generation made its mark in other ways as well. The sexy Ahn Trio — three Korean-born thirtysomething sisters — played twice to full houses in the area. The Ahns are a fusion ensemble of musicians who are succeeding in luring younger listeners to classical music by jazzing up the repertoire. Trim, attractive and hip, and with better navels than Britney Spears, the Ahns dress like elegant rockers and aren’t afraid to show off plenty of skin. But they are serious musicians as well whose popularity allows them to introduce new compositions by their peers along with the mandatory Beethoven. This summer, they premiered young composer Kenji Bunch’s punky new “Triple Concerto,” specifically written for the trio and accompanied by the Chesapeake Orchestra of St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

Some young performers excelled with the old stuff as well. Case in point: The prestigious William Kapell piano competition at the University of Maryland, which whittles down a crowd of some 40 youthful pianistic phenoms to a lucky three. The semifinalists then compete against one another in a musical adaptation of TV’s “Survivor,” thundering away on warhorse concerti before the final decision is rendered. This year’s winner, Ning An, a mere 26 years of age, gave Rachmaninoff’s magnificent but timeworn Second Piano Concerto a luminous new reading that stole the audiences’ heart while garnering votes from a distinguished panel of judges.

Not to be outdone by these upstarts, the ever-popular classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma, arguably the granddaddy of crossover artists, appeared at the Kennedy Center in September with an ensemble of new Brazilian friends, highlighting fusion pop and classical pieces from that musically exciting country.

“I think the reason I do this is that I’ve found many kinds of music interesting to me and interesting to my audiences,” he said. “Knowing the music that is precious in each country is to know each other better. It’s wonderful and very natural.” Mr. Ma’s packed houses would appear to agree, once again eager to hear a new repertoire performed by one of our time’s finest classical musicians.

The National Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin has introduced its fair share of new compositions over the past several years, and 2003 was no exception. This fall, it performed “Crossworlds for Flute, Piano, and Orchestra,” a new piece by Michael Colgrass, an American composer living in Toronto. It was billed as a sort-of opera in which solo instruments were characters impersonating dueling Eastern and Western musical styles. Sadly, Mr. Colgrass’ largely Glassian work wasn’t very engaging or original, and it tried too hard to make a profound statement — almost always a bad idea. But not everything that’s new is destined to be on the hit parade 50 years from now, and the NSO is to be commended for introducing yet another new work to area audiences, who are warming to the new material.

Meanwhile, the District’s established opera scene has been steadily proving that you can be old and new at the same time. The Wolf Trap Opera jumped on the Rameau opera-revival bandwagon, mounting the first-ever fully staged American performance of the composer’s “Dardanus” last summer at the Barns. The company’s young singers treated audiences to a rare musical feast accompanied by authentic period instruments.

In March, the Wolf Trap Opera will present its first commissioned opera, “Volpone,” by composer John Musto. He and librettist Mark Campbell adapted Ben Jonson’s madcap 1606 satirical play to the musical stage and have been workshopping it at Wolf Trap for the past year at the company’s new practice facilities. The Wolf Trap Web site praises Mr. Musto for “a score that is polished, lyrical and sophisticated.” Sounds good. But we’ll just have to see for ourselves in the spring.

The Washington Opera has some innovations of its own on tap. Flush with the success of its brilliant Constitution Hall production of Wagner’s “Die Walkure” this fall — which will long be remembered for the dazzling American debut of German mezzo-soprano Anja Kampe — the company will return to the Kennedy Center this spring for four more operas, including the East Coast premiere of Andre Previn’s “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Based on the Tennessee Williams play, Mr. Previn’s opera has been retooled somewhat since its San Francisco opening. The Washington performances are already attracting advance attention, and it will be fascinating to see how the revised opera works for the East Bank’s harsher audiences.

The Washington Opera has also gotten into the commissioning business, something General Director Placido Domingo has vowed to do for a long time. As a special offering in addition to the regular Kennedy Center season next year, the company will mount the world premiere of Scott Wheeler’s opera “Democracy: An American Comedy.” The new work will be performed by members of the Washington Opera’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program. The date and venue have yet to be announced.

All these new productions, whether offered by young performers or more established ones, is an encouraging sign for both the area music scene and classical music in general. There once was a day, not so long ago, when major symphonic and operatic composers and performers such as Beethoven, Chopin, Berlioz — and particularly Liszt, Verdi, and Puccini — were the musical superstars of their eras. Every upper-crust salon chanteuse or middle-class parlor pianist was sure to be well-armed with their latest songs and tunes for parties and gatherings.

Those days vanished in the 20th century, as classical composers and performers pushed musically hideous works on a public that was generally repelled by them. It’s not surprising that as the century progressed, audiences for this kind of music dwindled, forcing symphony orchestras and opera companies to continually recycle the older, better, more reliable material, which would still draw a crowd. When innovative, interesting classical music ceased to be, so did its audience. Searching again for that elusive audience, composers and performers, particularly the younger ones, are reaching out with remarkable and frequently enjoyable new works. The jury is still out, but Washington audiences are increasingly in on the ground floor of whatever is happening next. It might not be an entirely smooth ride, but it will be an interesting one.


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