- The Washington Times - Friday, December 30, 2005

Washington’s 2005 classical music scene was the best of times and the worst of times. But most of the time, ‘05 seemed like a place-holder year during which the area’s premiere performing arts groups preferred to stand comfortably in place rather than incur expensive new risks.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra touted its 90th concert season — current Music Director Yuri Temirkanov’s last — as one to remember. Alas, BSO’s programming at Strathmore Music Center has generally proved less challenging than WGMS’ diet of “classical lite” on your FM dial (103.5). Worse, a much-anticipated Christmas concert collaboration with Darin Atwater’s 75-piece African-American Soulful Symphony here was scrubbed at the last minute, as were select other concerts, purportedly the result of poor advance sales and the ensemble’s continuing financial woes.

As to the eagerly awaited Battle of the Bands between the BSO and the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) — chalk it up as a rout for the hometown guys and gals. Perhaps the arrival of new Music Director Marin Alsop next season will shake the BSO’s programming and its audience out of their collective lethargy.

But then, the NSO hasn’t exactly been setting the world on fire with its recent programming, either. Things are not very comfortable at the KenCen right now, with maestro Leonard Slatkin slowly headed for the exits after next season, apparently the result of long-simmering differences of opinion with management.

This reviewer has followed Mr. Slatkin’s career for many years and appreciates the way he has built this once-wan ensemble into a contender while bolstering a repertoire that often seemed as tired as Baltimore’s current playlist.

No one seemed entirely happy with the maestro’s excellent London adventures, an unease almost certainly shared by KenCen management and a few musicians. Mr. Slatkin seemed intent on following a developing trend that has renowned conductors jet-setting to second and even third gigs around the world, inevitably shortchanging their main squeeze at home.

Why they do this is unclear. Money? Vanity? An urge to travel? Whatever the case, rehearsal times can get squeezed, erasing the home-field advantage, wherever home may be. Eventually, knowledgeable audience members get restless, as evidenced by one veteran concertgoer who confided that she never would attend another NSO concert as long as Mr. Slatkin remained at the helm.

Nonetheless, some truly interesting NSO stuff is appearing on the January horizon. Maestro Slatkin himself will lead the NSO in the world premiere of Roberto Sierra’s “Missa Latina” (Feb. 2 through 4) and in performances of Gustav Mahler’s epic Symphony No. 8 (June 8 through 10).

“Missa Latina”? The NSO is not the only area group that has caught Latin fever. Led by Norman Scribner, the Choral Arts Society of Washington — which co-commissioned the Sierra work with the NSO and will sing it in the February premiere — has just issued its new south-of-the-border CD, “Celebrating Sacred Rhythms.” The disc is chock-full of noisy and percussive Latin liturgical music, some of it played on traditional instruments.

Compositions include Ariel Ramirez’s “Navidad Nuestra” (“Our Nativity”) and his “Missa Criolla,” an extraordinarily popular folk Mass accentuating Argentine, Bolivian and Creole rhythms. The choral work is first-rate, and the CD is a hugely entertaining intro to the boisterous world of Latin- and African-inspired church music.

On an equally bright note, the Washington National Opera, which also has been playing things musically safe for the past year, dazzled the area with its brilliant first-ever staging of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” in November. The opera’s free telescreen performance on the Mall the same month generated uncommon excitement from an audience of roughly 13,000 who actually applauded the artists on the tube. This was, hands down, the classical music hit of the year in the nation’s capital.

Before closing out 2005, we would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge the 25th-anniversary party thrown for WAMU-FM’s (88.5) Rob Bamberger last month at Arlington’s Clarendon Ballroom. Disguised by day as just another working stiff, Mr. Bamberger has become world-renowned for moonlighting gratis as the popular host, historian, discographer and disc jockey of “Hot Jazz Saturday Night,” a radio mainstay here for a quarter-century. Plaudits to him and to WAMU for bucking today’s distressing trend toward homogenization and nonstop National Public Radio feeds on public radio.

May “Hot Jazz” ring in another 25 new years in Washington, with Mr. Bamberger continuing to spin vintage jazz sides while chronicling the difficult times and frequently troubled lives of the immortals who invented, from the bottom up, America’s only indigenous classical music.

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