- The Washington Times - Friday, September 3, 2004

Four years after the turmoil of the 2000 election and three years after the shock and trauma of September 11, Washington’s classical music scene seems to be settling back into its groove.

Take the Washington Opera. Oops, the Washington National Opera, so retitled earlier this year, courtesy of its friends in Congress. Although its efforts at DAR Constitution Hall were heroic, including brilliant performances of “Aida” and “Die Walkure,” the company suffered increasing financial hardships at that venue before its return to the KenCen in spring.

Now that it’s back in the new and somewhat improved Opera House, the company will see if it can entice back some lost ticket sales from folks who were less than enchanted with the digs at DAR. To liven things up a bit, the company’s general director, Placido Domingo, has introduced some interesting new challenges into the schedule.

Chief among them are Benjamin Britten’s “Billy Budd” and the world premiere of Scott Wheeler’s brand-new “Democracy.” The Opera will introduce Francesca Zambello’s production of “Billy Budd” Sept. 18.

Conducted by Richard Hickox and featuring an all-male all-star cast including Dwayne Croft and perennial heartthrob Samuel Ramey, this modernist classic by Benjamin Britten is seen far less often than it should be.

Its story, adapted from Herman Melville, is a morality tale for our times, with a strong sexual undercurrent. For those not enamored of modern opera, its music, though occasionally bracing, is in a high verismo style that will prove a real surprise for the uninitiated.

The company’s fall stanza wraps with a production of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” starring Washington’s sweetheart, Denyce Graves, as Azucena and a new production of Moreno Torroba’s zarzuela “Luisa Fernanda,” featuring maestro Domingo himself as Vidal Hernando.

Mr. Domingo’s experiments with introducing zarzuela were not judged successful a few years back, but there’s no reason why Washington’s sometimes-stodgy audience for traditional opera shouldn’t try something new.

New is the word for the company’s world premiere of Mr. Wheeler’s “Democracy,” a satirical comic opera set here in the nation’s capital. This intriguing departure for the company, scheduled for January 2005, should appeal to audiences who will be weary of 2004 electioneering, no matter who is inaugurated president for the next four years. For more information on the Washington National Opera’s offerings, check out its Web site at www.dc-opera.org.

While we’re at the Kennedy Center, let’s move over to the Concert Hall, where the National Symphony Orchestra will be opening its new season with a Prelude Festival in early September followed by its regular season, which, among other things, is a celebration of maestro Leonard Slatkin’s 60th birthday.

The still-youthful Mr. Slatkin, a perpetual-motion machine if there ever was one, has revitalized the NSO during his tenure in ways that his predecessors could only have imagined.

He has introduced a great deal of sometimes difficult contemporary music without alienating his audiences — a trick replicated in recent memory only by former Cleveland Orchestra Music Director Cristoph von Dohnany.

Moreover, Mr. Slatkin has been extraordinarily active in musical outreach programs in the D.C. area.

One of this fall’s highlights promises to be, in full Slatkin mode, an eclectic evening. The program will include popular French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet in a performance of Gershwin’s Concerto in F, the world premiere of “The Throne of the Third Heaven” by young American composer Jefferson Friedman (Oct. 28 through 30) and, just for traditionalists, a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7.

For details on these and other NSO performances this season, surf to www.kennedy-center.org/nso.

The NSO and the KenCen will be getting some serious competition from Maryland’s new Music Center at Strathmore as the calendar turns this season.

Slated for a Feb. 5, 2005 opening, Strathmore’s impressive new space will join the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Center as another leg in Maryland’s suburban powerhouse of a music scene.

The hall will seat 1,978 and promises to be a world-class venue. It also will serve as a second home for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, providing the metro area with not one, but two excellent orchestras from which to choose. To find out more, check out www.strathmore.org.

Choral fans will be cheered by the return of the Choral Arts Society Nov. 7. It will be performing Carl Orff’s wildly popular “Carmina Burana” at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall under the baton of — who else? — Leonard Slatkin.

Also on the program is the world premiere of Brent Michael David’s “We the People,” a new work composed to celebrate the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Mr. David is a member of the Mohican nation. Details at https://www.choralarts.org/.

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