- The Washington Times - Friday, September 8, 2006

Washington’s 2006-07 classical music season is a veritable smorgasbord of top events. It features an increasingly varied menu of interesting works as opposed to last year’s somewhat musty offerings. Yet it’s also a time of transition for the area’s major orchestras.

The tenure of the National Symphony Orchestra’s current music director, Leonard Slatkin, is slowly winding down. It will end after the 2007-08 season, but the identity of his eventual successor — if indeed there is one as of this writing — remains a mystery. Meanwhile, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is awaiting the eventual arrival of Marin Alsop at the helm. She will serve as music director-designate this season and will begin her formal tenure in the next. Things are bound to change with both orchestras, with Ms. Alsop virtually certain to beef up the BSO’s repertoire from the start.

Interestingly, Ms. Alsop will be appearing in Washington later this month to conduct the Washington National Opera’s (WNO’s) American premiere of Nicholas Maw’s nearly new opera “Sophie’s Choice” at the Kennedy Center on Sept. 21. Based on the William Styron novel of the same name, which later became an extraordinarily moving film, the opera received its world premiere at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden in December 2002. The WNO is importing most of the original London cast.

Mr. Maw, a British-born composer who resides in Washington for most of the year, says he is very much looking forward to these performances. Well aware of the excellent reviews Ms. Alsop has earned in England as the principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, he says he believes she’s a “wonderful choice” to conduct the WNO’s premiere of the opera. Surprisingly little known on this side of the Atlantic, Mr. Maw has developed a considerable reputation as a “listenable” modern composer, and “Sophie’s Choice” may prove to be a surprise hit for the company this fall.

The WNO’s season actually begins on Sept. 16 with an unusual pairing of two one-act operas — Giacomo Puccini’s always-popular “Gianni Schicchi” and Bela Bartok’s infrequently heard “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle.”

The latter is a psychological thriller based on the fantastic tale of the sinister duke who’s known for the unfortunate habit of murdering each one of his wives. Who better to play the duke than renowned bass-baritone Samuel Ramey, the man who made Arrigo Boito’s “Mephis-topheles” famous?

Washington’s favorite heroine, mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, also will be on tap in the role of Judith, Bluebeard’s latest wife. Both operas will be conducted by Heinz Fricke and directed by William Friedkin of “Exorcist” fame. Be very afraid. (Mr. Ramey also will appear in the title role of the swindler, Gianni Schicchi, in the Puccini work.)

The WNO will conclude its fall stanza with nine November performances of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly,” opening on Nov. 4. Sopranos Hui He and Xiu Wei Sun will alternate in the title role, with Placido Domingo and Eugene Kohn sharing duties at the podium.

The company will resume its season in March 2007 with performances of Wagner’s “Die Walkure,” starring Mr. Domingo and Anja Kampe as Siegmund and Sieglinde — the surprise pairing that stunned the opera world when the company performed it during its Constitution Hall exile a few seasons back.

Speaking of opera, the ever-improving Virginia Opera comes to town this fall for two performances of Georges Bizet’s beloved “Carmen” (Oct. 13 and 15) at George Mason’s Center for the Arts in Fairfax. A highlight of this performance will be the appearance of marvelous up-and-coming soprano Cristina Nassif in the title role. The company will return to George Mason the following month for performances of Carlisle Floyd’s increasingly popular “Susannah,” an American update of the biblical tale of a deeply wronged young woman (Dec. 1 and 3).

The Washington Performing Arts Society (WPAS) can always be relied upon to bring a stellar blend of the world’s greatest stars to a number of area venues, including the Kennedy Center.

Fall highlights will include a performance by the world-famous Cleveland Orchestra under the baton of Franz Welser-Most in a program featuring music of Dvorak, Mozart, and Debussy (Oct. 8). Having apparently escaped Bluebeard’s clutches, Miss Graves will appear in recital (Oct. 10). And the Kirov Orchestra, under the baton of Valery Gergiev, will perform Dmitri Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony and Tchaikovsky?s “Piano Concerto No. 1,” with soloist Alexander Toradze (Oct. 25).

The National Symphony Orchestra’s season is already underway. Notable events this fall will include maestro Slatkin conducting the world premiere of James Lee III’s new composition, “Beyond Rivers of Vision” (Oct. 19-21). This program also includes performances of Ravel’s complete “Daphnis et Chloe” ballet, with chorus, and Dvorak’s “Cello Concerto in B-minor, Op. 104,” with renowned soloist Lynn Harrell.

Since 2006 is the centennial of Dmitri Shostakovich’s birth, it’s not surprising that former NSO conductor Mstislav Rostropovich will return to the orchestra to conduct two all-Shostakovich programs (Nov. 2-4 and Nov. 9-11.) The latter series includes a rare appearance of the legendary Marta Argerich in Shostakovich’s distinctive “Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor for Piano, String Orchestra, and Trumpet, Op. 35.” Stephen Hendrickson will be the trumpet soloist (Nov. 9-10). The Nov. 11 concert will feature the brilliant and popular cellist Yo-Yo Ma in the composer’s “Cello Concerto No. 2, Op. 126.”

If you can’t get enough Shostakovich, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is doing its bit to help out at Bethesda’s sparkling Strathmore Music Center. The ensemble’s music director emeritus Yuri Temirkanov will return to conduct a Sept. 28 performance of Shostakovich’s stirring “Symphony No. 5,” pairing it thematically with a performance of Mahler’s moving “Kindertotenleider” (“Songs for Dead Children”).

On a totally different note, it looks like Washington’s premier cabaret ensemble, the In Series has finally found some security in its current Source Theatre digs. That pioneering but troubled space was slated to go the way of many buildings in the once-funky and now rapidly upscaling U Street Northwest area — sold to developers with dollar-signs dancing in their heads.

The Cultural Development Corp. stepped up to the plate last month to bail out the debt-ridden venue and eventually renovate it. This might enable the In Series and a few other organizations to finally settle down in one place. Meanwhile, fall Series productions include a Spanish cabaret featuring the work of female composers at the Source (Oct. 22-28), and a revival of the company’s funny update of Mozart’s “Magic Flute” at the GALA Theatre-Tivoli (Nov. 18-Dec. 2).

The University of Maryland?s nifty Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center continues with its rich array of high-quality student music programs, recitals, and special events. But the main event of its 2006-2007 season will certainly be the return of the 26th William Kapell International Competition and Festival in July 2007. This prestigious and glamorous event will bring hopeful young pianists from around the world to College Park to compete and perform. It’s an absolute must for lovers of classical piano music.

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