- - Friday, April 12, 2013

They’re changing the guard at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Two key shapers of Washington’s cultural life have stepped in, soon to be followed by a third. The full impact of these changes at the nation’s busiest performing arts institution won’t be felt for some time, as program schedules are sometimes set years in advance. Still, the purpose of the new appointments was certainly not to maintain the status quo.

The Washington Performing Arts Society’s new president and CEO is Jenny Bilfield, who succeeds Neale Perl (who becomes president emeritus).

Now there’s a switch. Ms. Bilfield comes to the District from directing Stanford Live, Stanford University’s campus-based arts producer. WPAS, based at the Kennedy Center with forays to the Strathmore Music Center in Bethesda, is the 48-year-old concert organization with, to put it mildly, a distinct preference for the mainstream repertoire — classical, jazz and dance performed by top tier musicians.

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma doesn’t perform at WPAS concerts every other week; it just looks that way. Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, another WPAS regular, was a member of the search committee that hired Ms. Bilfield.

But at Stanford, Ms. Bilfield — married to composer Joel Friedman — earned a reputation for promoting contemporary music and what the WPAS news release on her appointment in January called “cutting edge artists.” At Stanford, she booked performances of new works she had commissioned by among others Philip Glass, John Adams and Steve Reich.

The move is “exciting and a different environment,” Ms. Bilfield told a Palo Alto, Calif., paper. “There’s a real sense of mission and opportunity.” Which could mean that avant garde composers such as John Cage are about to enter the WPAS repertoire.

Meanwhile, at the Washington National Opera, Francesca Zambello was supervising rehearsals this week of Jerome Kern’s “Showboat” as part of her first full program as the WNO’s new artistic director.

Unlike Ms. Bilfield, Ms. Zambello is already a known quantity to Washington audiences from her daring versions of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, suspended because of money problems in 2009 after three of the four individual productions had been staged. That was under her predecessor, world-renowned tenor Placido Domingo, who left the post in 2011.

In 2012, the debt-laden WNO sought financial shelter by merging with the Kennedy Center and trimming down its repertoire. The WNO has since announced that it will stage Ms. Zambello’s Ring in 2016.

But Ms. Zambello will make her musical entry as WNO artistic director with her production of “Showboat,” which premieres May 4. Her “Showboat” was performed in Chicago last season, but she has turned it into a blockbuster, with 150 singers and a chorus — the latter numbering 100, 50 of them black and 50 white, says the WNO — and a subliminal message that the Washington National Opera will just keep rolling along.

The rescue of the WNO owed a lot to the vision of Michael Kaiser, outgoing president of the Kennedy Center, whose contract ends in 2014. Kennedy Center board Chairman David M. Rubenstein, founder of the global private equity firm Carlyle Group, and Anthony Welters, executive vice president of UnitedHealth Group, lead the search committee for Mr. Kaiser’s successor, with a hopeful deadline of the end of this year so as to allow for a comfortable period of transition.

“Michael Kaiser’s fine stewardship over the past 12 years has ushered in a golden age at the Kennedy Center,” the co-chairmen of the search committee said in a statement in January.

There is no question the job is a formidable challenge, one involving the running of an opera company, two orchestras and a ballet company, as well as extensive theater, dance and jazz sessions.

In addition, the Kennedy Center president is called upon to raise an additional $80 million each year to buttress the $200 million received from the federal government and is answerable to a 59-member board of trustees, more than half of them appointed by the president of the United States, and the rest sitting by virtue of their respective offices, including the secretary of state.

Next year, there will be the added responsibility of overseeing a planned $100 million Kennedy Center extension across the highway from the main building, with a floating stage on the Potomac River, rehearsal facilities and classrooms.

If the choice falls to a woman, a female cultural triumvirate will control the Kennedy Center.

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