Four Quick Thoughts on the Washington Performing Arts 2016-17 Season

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  1. The SHIFT Festival is crowding out Washington Performing Arts’ traditional presentations of visiting international orchestras. WPA and the Kennedy Center will be co-presenting the successor to the innovative Spring For Music Festival next March and April, bringing four lesser known American orchestras (the Boulder Philharmonic, North Carolina Symphony, Atlanta Symphony, and the Knights) to Washington.  But this means fewer dates and, crucially, less money for the pricey presentations of international orchestras, many of which were poorly sold this season.  Three top-flight orchestras will be on the schedule: the Royal Concertgebouw, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic.  But D.C. audiences will be missing out on the Berlin Philharmonic on what looks like Simon Rattle’s final North American tour, even as the Berliners make East Coast stops in New York, Boston, and Toronto this November.

 

  1. WPA is continuing its shift in focus toward “contemporary classical,” new music, education, and outreach. In truth, the yawning rows of empty seats at many of the international orchestra concerts this season only confirm the sense that the traditional audience for traditional presentations of classical music is no longer what it used to be.  Under the leadership of President and CEO Jenny Bilfield, WPA has been making an incremental but emphatic shift in organizational focus toward presentations of commissions and premieres, less traditional ensembles, and its education and community outreach programs.  The landscape of classical music is shifting under everybody’s feet.  But is WPA risking alienating what remains of its dwindling, traditional base chasing after new audiences that may not even exist at all?

 

  1. WPA is, however, maintaining its traditionally strong roster of visiting pianists. The impressive season schedule not only includes established artists like András Schiff, Murray Perahia, Richard Goode, Yefim Bronfman, and Leif Ove Andsnes and Marc-André Hamelin (in a duo recital!), but also arguably the hottest star in the piano world in Daniil Trifonov (playing a full recital on April 4), as well as a slew of up-and-comers on its Hayes Piano Series: Lucas Debargue, Tomer Gewirtzman, Igor Levit (making up a cancelled recital from May 2015), Javier Perianes, and Llŷr Williams.  Founder Patrick Hayes would have been proud of the assembly of talent featured on the series named in his honor.

 

  1. Programming may increasingly become a test of performers’ tastes. Jenny Bilfield has said she has been encouraging artists to suggest “projects they actually wanted to do, rather than the things they were ‘supposed’ to do.”  This kind of conversation, Bilfield said, led directly to the organization’s commissioning of new music for violinist Hilary Hahn from lesser known Spanish composer Antón García Abril—at Hahn’s suggestion.  How good is the music?  We’ll find out on Tuesday, when Hahn performs the first set of García Abril’s three partitas at Strathmore.  (She’ll perform the second set next season.)  But let’s keep in mind this project is coming from a violinist who has called Vieuxtemps’ Fourth Concerto one of her favorite pieces.  That said, there will always be a strong element of risk when commissioning any new work—and that is a risk WPA and Bilfield appear to be embracing wholeheartedly.

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