Friday, December 31, 2004

As memories of 2004 draw to a close and the promises of 2005 appear, the good news is that the Washington area’s classical music scene — badly hurt by a drop in donations and patronage after September 11 — has not just stabilized. The richness and competitive edge of the area’s musical mix genuinely appears to be on the upswing with the new Music Center at Strathmore scheduled to open in Bethesda Feb. 5.

There are some notable exceptions, such as the murky ongoing implosion of the once-vibrant Washington Chamber Symphony. Yet overall, Washington’s classical music ensembles seem to have weathered the post-September 11 economic downturn in far better shape than many musical organizations nationwide.

During the past three years, the San Jose Symphony, the Savannah Symphony and the Tulsa Philharmonic have rung down their final curtains. Florida’s largest symphony, the Florida Philharmonic, closed shop through a Chapter 7 bankruptcy and suffered the further indignity of seeing its instruments and equipment put on the auction block. The now-defunct Colorado Springs Symphony wound up in a similar situation.

While all classical music ensembles continue to face the challenge of attracting a younger demographic, much of this recent destruction has been caused by the rapid erosion of orchestral endowments, which began with the dot-com implosion of March 2000.

September 11 exacerbated the accelerating downturn, influencing many to steer clear of urban public venues for a time, thereby robbing many musical organizations of precious ticket revenue and donations.

Collateral damage wasn’t limited to smaller ensembles, either. Even today, major orchestras in larger cities continue to experience major difficulties.

New York’s Metropolitan Opera, for instance, has had to make some scheduling adjustments. Symphony orchestra programs in Houston and Cleveland have been cut back.

The well-regarded Pittsburgh Symphony remains mired in severe financial difficulties. Its endowment was whacked with a loss of approximately $40 million because of Wall Street’s waterfall decline. Other endowments nationwide were struck with severe and sometimes fatal blows.

Although the world-class Cleveland Orchestra’s finances are relatively strong, it, too, has remained under pressure, with Wall Street taking a roughly $50 million bite out of its portfolio. Adding to its woes have been a contract dispute with the musicians union and the loss of major corporate supporters such as BF Goodrich and BP America.

Both departed northeastern Ohio with a negative impact on corporate giving — in much the same manner as the recent disappearance of Mobil Corp. and the weakening of America Online have hurt corporate philanthropy here.

Indeed, Washington was not entirely immune to the nationwide downturn. In addition to the demise of the Washington Chamber Symphony, it witnessed near-death experiences for the “In” Series concerts and the Washington Concert Opera.

Both, however, appear to be recovering, with the former gaining some success by increasing its focus on Washington’s growing Latino population.

The Washington National Opera had some rough sledding last season, although its difficulties were caused more by its exile from the Kennedy Center than the nation’s economic woes.

Although at least two of its productions in DAR Constitution Hall — “Aida” and “Die Walkure” — attracted international attention, longtime patrons were put off by the obvious drawbacks of the company’s cavernous temporary home. The company estimates it lost roughly $1.3 million during its stay there.

It still seems to be suffering from aftereffects of necessary budgetary snugging, as evidenced by the reuse of its awful “Il Trovatore” sets during this fall’s production.

Nonetheless, the WNO will begin 2005 on a promising note with the Jan. 28 world premiere of Scott Wheeler’s new opera “Democracy” — commissioned by the company— at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium.

It’s an innovative move that allows the introduction of a new work in a smaller space and with a lower economic risk. Coupled with the past year’s premieres of “Volpone” at Wolf Trap and “Clara” at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, it looks as if it’s a good time to be an opera composer in the District.

On the other hand, things appear to be less happy at the National Symphony Orchestra. Organizationally part of the Kennedy Center complex, the ensemble would appear secure financially. However, the stunning announcement of Leonard Slatkin’s upcoming departure (at the end of the 2007-08 season) means Washington will lose one of the nation’s great champions of musical excellence and innovative programming.

Promoting distinctly varied concerts that combine popular classics with new music — albeit occasionally of dubious value — Mr. Slatkin has refreshed and redefined NSO’s lineup by embracing frequently slighted composers such as George Gershwin and Duke Ellington while promoting a belated recognition of the importance of film music in the American classical mix.

Without Mr. Slatkin’s enlightened guidance, one wonders what direction the NSO — greatly improved during his tenure — will take in a future that soon will include head-to-head competition with the aggressively up-and-coming Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore.

Here’s an economic problem of a different sort. Major League Baseball finally has decided that there is, indeed, room for two professional baseball teams in the Washington-Baltimore corridor.

It will be interesting to see whether the same kind of mutually assured prosperity can hold true in the shrinking classical music world.

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