- The Washington Times - Friday, September 11, 2009

It’s been one tough year for America’s classical music ensembles. The ongoing Great Recession has clobbered corporate and consumer wallets, with considerable economic consequences for performing-arts organizations.

Earlier, the Baltimore Opera went belly-up seemingly overnight. Closer to home, Washington’s venerable Summer Opera Theatre Company scrubbed this year’s schedule, vowing to regroup. But in an Aug. 15 posting on its Web site, the company announced it had “ceased operations” and closed its offices.

Most organizations here are in survival mode, deftly trimming performance dates and splashy ambitions. Generally, performances of new or relatively unknown works have been shelved in favor of programs heavy on crowd-pleasing favorites that should fill seats.

For example, Washington National Opera and the Virginia Opera (which appears locally at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts) will be offering their own versions of George Gershwin’s popular “Porgy and Bess” in the spring.

The Virginia company has cut this season’s productions to four from its usual five. They open in Norfolk on Oct. 3 with Puccini’s immortal “La Boheme.” Remaining operas include Donizetti’s tuneful “Daughter of the Regiment” and Mozart’s compelling “Don Giovanni.”

WNO is playing things safe as well, opening this weekend with Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” and flanking it next spring with another Figaro fave, Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro.” The company will perform Verdi’s beloved “Falstaff” on Oct. 11.

Also on tap in WNO’s spring stanza is Richard Strauss’ easy-to-like “Ariadne auf Naxos,” although the company is making a riskier bet offering Ambroise Thomas’ relatively unknown version of “Hamlet” as well. All WNO performances are at the Kennedy Center Opera House.

WNO, alas, has as yet been unable to mount “Gotterdammerung,” the final installment in its own “American Ring” cycle. Having booked the singers this year, however, the company will offer two concert performances of Wagner’s huge opera in November. It also will present a special one-time-only concert on Oct. 3 featuring a pair of Russian superstar soloists, the real-life husband-and-wife duo Ildar Abdrazakov and Olga Borodina.

Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra are back, and the maestra’s persisting aura of excitement continues to pull this company back from the abyss. As a result, the ensemble can still take some risks, as in its Sept. 26 Strathmore season opener, featuring contemporary composer Jennifer Higdon’s quirky “Concerto 4-3,” composed for the almost eponymous Time for Three trio, which will perform the work. Miss Alsop, however, has tastefully bookended the Higdon with a few of Brahms’ Hungarian dances and Tchaikovsky’s barn-burning Fourth Symphony.

Although still technically rudderless after the departure of Leonard Slatkin, the National Symphony Orchestra, under the temporary helm of principal conductor Ivan Fischer, is giving this season a similar go, platooning old war horses with the less well-known, as in Oct. 3’s regular season opener featuring Beethoven’s programmatic “Pastoral Symphony” and rarely heard ballet music from Bela Bartok’s “Wooden Prince.”

The NSO rounds out an ambitious October with performances by big-name artists, including pianist Nelson Freire in Brahms’ First Piano Concerto; glam violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg in the Barber Violin Concerto under the baton of Lorin Maazel; and an evening with tenor phenom Ben Heppner.

The Washington Performing Arts Society continues to book megatalent in venues across the area, including solo performances by pianist Murray Perahia (Oct. 17) and soprano Kiri Te Kanawa (Nov. 14) and an appearance by the New York Philharmonic (Nov. 21), all at the KenCen Concert Hall.

Smaller ensembles are still hanging in there. The In Series is back this weekend with “Cosi fan tutte Goes Hollywood,” its spicy update of Mozart’s classic opera as well as a reprise next week of last spring’s smash hit cabaret, “From U St. to the Cotton Club,” both at the Source.

Washington Concert Opera is also still with us, thankfully, this season, offering two standards, Gounod’s “Faust” (Nov. 22) and Rossini’s “Cinderella” (“La Cenerentola”) next spring, both at Lisner.

Virginia-based Amadeus Concerts Inc. continues to surprise with a series of unique programs. These include an appearance by the Washington Symphonic Brass (Sept. 20) performing works by Bizet, Verdi and others, and a newish choral composition by Welshman Karl Jenkins, “The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace,” commemorating the Kosovo conflict (Oct. 17 and 18), both mounted at McLean’s St. Luke Church on Georgetown Pike.

On Oct. 11, the peripatetic Bel Cantanti Opera Company returns to a brand-new Tysons Corner music-theater venue, the 1st Stage Theater, with a chamber version of Handel’s “Julius Caesar.” The opera is reprised the following weekend at Rockville’s Greater Jewish Community Center.

The 2009-10 season will be fiscally challenging for the area’s classical ensembles, even the big ones. But survival won’t be impossible if enough financially challenged performing arts fans do a little more shopping at Wal-Mart and deploy the savings to purchase a concert ticket. Now that’s a real, targeted American stimulus package. And it won’t cost the taxpayers a dime.

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