- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 8, 2007

Autumn is in the air, or will be shortly.It’s time to com- mencethe Washington area’s 2007-2008 classical music season, whose fall stanza promises to be notable for three potentially transformative events.

We emphasize “Washington area” because one of September’s important happenings is the inaugural concert of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) under the baton of Marin Alsop as she takes over as the ensemble’s music director. Past reports have had a tendency to emphasize the fact that Ms. Alsop is the first woman to attain this lofty position with a major American orchestra, but that’s condescending and misses the real point.

Ms. Alsop comes to the area with an impressive resume. She already boasts an enviable track record as an innovative and imaginative conductor, possessing the focus and vision to renovate an orchestra’s repertoire while engaging and building an audience across a wider demographic.

In addition, her willingness to champion the works of accessible contemporary classical composers while cultivating a reverence for tradition has attracted renewed attention from a jaded recording industry that wrote off classical long ago but seems willing to record Marin Alsop CDs. That’s a big plus for both the composers and an orchestra like the BSO.

In short, Ms. Alsop’s selection was not a publicity stunt. It was the start of a major effort to breathe new excitement into a venerable musical franchise.

The BSO will open its season on Sept. 27 at Bethesda’s Music Center at Strathmore. Auspiciously, this performance will be carried live on XM satellite radio.

On tap is what will probably become a prototypical Alsop program, juxtaposing Gustav Mahler’s gigantic “5th Symphony” with contemporary American composer John Adams’ tricky “Fearful Symmetry.” It’s a minimalist techno-tone poem, performed on acoustic and electronic instruments and loosely based on William Blake’s enigmatic short poem, “The Tyger.” The program repeats Sept. 28-30 in Baltimore at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

Downtown, media excitement is on the minds of Washington National Opera aficionados as well. WNO opens its season on Sept. 15 with that ever-popular standard, Puccini’s “La Boheme,” at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House. The company’s coffers will overflow. That is pretty important, as Puccini is a man for all seasons, allowing opera companies to underwrite newer works with less-certain marketability, like William Bolcom’s newish and well-regarded “A View From the Bridge,” which will open in November.

WNO’s 2007 “Boheme” will have a more contemporary look and feel, courtesy of Polish director Mariusz Trelinski, whose spectacular “Madame Butterfly,” twice performed by the company, won much praise while drawing a few brickbats.

Not to be outdone by BSO and XM satellite radio in terms of audience outreach, WNO is seeking perhaps its largest audience ever for its Sept. 23 matinee performance of “La Boheme.” Building on its experience simulcasting operas to Washington’s Mall for free, the company will also simulcast this performance to Silver Spring’s AFI Theatre and Alexandria’s Old Town Theater — and to venues at 32 universities, colleges and high schools across the U.S. If the technology behaves, this event could boost WNO’s national reputation by an order of magnitude.

Speaking of technology, it seems like only yesterday that local classical music fans were contemplating a drink of hemlock. WGMS-FM and its dumbed-down classical bubble gum format were first booted down the radio dial to a pair of signals so weak they were rumored to be powered only by a harnessed pair of mole rats. The owners of the venerable franchise subsequently sent it, as well as the classical radio format in the nation’s capital, to sleep with the fishes.

Prior to this debacle, WETA-FM had also whacked the masters, replacing Bach and Beethoven with a tiresome cadre of leftie gasbags from NPR and the BBC. As WGMS went down for the third time, however, WETA management pulled a 180, orchestrating a bold, brilliant and near-flawlessly executed return to the public radio station’s classical roots and beyond. The result? A mad dash to 90.9 by grateful classical music fans eager to hear whole symphonies again, a big boost in ratings and an astronomical increase in pledges.

Beginning this month, WETA-FM will be adding a number of locally oriented programs, including broadcasts of National Gallery of Art concerts airing Mondays, Saturday-afternoon opera broadcasts of WNO performances recorded last season at the Kennedy Center, and the National Symphony Orchestra’s opening-night concert festivities with Renee Fleming on Sept. 16.

Supporting our city and supporting our cultural traditions with programs not available elsewhere was once a major goal of public radio. A hat tip to the folks at WETA-FM. They’ve gone back to the future by doing the right thing, and doing it well.

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