Three overall thoughts on the fall season in Washington:
1. This is an emphatically unexciting season for both of Washington’s central musical institutions, the National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington National Opera. But at least with the NSO, there’s hope for the future, as Christoph Eschenbach’s promising successor, Gianandrea Noseda, will drop in to conduct two programs this fall.
2. Washington Performing Arts remains an organization in transition, as it makes an incremental but decided shift in focus toward “contemporary classical,” new music, and less traditional ensembles. But will it maintain its traditional role as the presenter that brings the big guns of the classical music world to town to the satisfaction of the core classical audience?
3. D.C. still remains a world-class touring destination for visiting soloists and ensembles, and much of the most exciting programming this fall is occurring, as it often does, under the auspices of the Phillips Collection, the Library of Congress, Vocal Arts DC, and other chamber music presenters.
Preview of the Coming Attraction at the NSO
This is Christoph Eschenbach’s final season as music director of the NSO, which means this is hopefully the last time Lang Lang (an Eschenbach favorite) headlines the season opening gala for a while (Sept. 25). But more than any of Eschenbach’s farewell concerts, the most intriguing programs this fall are those that offer a glimpse of the NSO’s promising future under incoming music director Gianandrea Noseda.
Noseda, who officially takes the reins in the 2017-2018 season, will lead two weeks of concerts this year as music director designate. The first program, featuring the complete score to Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, showcases Noseda’s strengths in the Russian repertory (and in ballet music) he developed as principal guest conductor at Russia’s Mariinsky Theatre (Nov. 3-5). Noseda then returns in January with an evening of Americana (Bernstein, Copland, Gershwin, and John Williams) for the Kennedy Center’s JFK tribute—an obligatory bit of programming that at least gestures toward a commitment to American music that the NSO hasn’t had since the Leonard Slatkin era (Jan. 19, 22). Will Noseda be the one to elevate the NSO from the state of perpetual mediocrity it has been mired in for decades? Only time will tell, but we’ll get an intriguing preview of things to come this fall.
Discontent with the WNO
I’ve heard from more than one long-time Washington National Opera subscriber who has cancelled their season subscription because of dissatisfaction with the company’s programming this season. The most common complaint is two-fold: the over-programming of newer operas (Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking and Terence Blanchard’s Champion come in this spring), which the company seemingly attempted to balance by putting on three of the more tired warhorses in the operatic repertory: Nozze, Butterfly, and La Fille du Regiment. While the disgruntled ex-subscribers said they would prefer to see only one contemporary work per season, they would more willingly tolerate two newer operas if the season’s other three productions weren’t things they’d already seen a dozen times in their lives. They want less standard, less routine repertory from the operatic canon. If the season demands Puccini, do La fanciulla del West instead of Butterfly, one of my interlocutors suggested.
I have also heard from a recent denizen of the DC area who has never been without an opera subscription anywhere he and his wife have lived in the world. But the “bizarrely balanced” WNO schedule (a mix of “new and boring” and “old and boring,” in his words) has him looking into a Met subscription and banking Acela miles.
All that said, and with apologies to my new opera-phobic friends, the most promising project of the WNO season is not any of the mainstage productions but the latest installment of WNO’s hour-long opera initiative: The Dictator’s Wife, a new work with music by the exciting young New York-based composer Mohammad Fairouz and libretto by Pakistani writer Mohammed Hanif (Jan. 13 and 15).
The title character of Fairouz and Hanif’s new opera, while unnamed, is based on the wife of former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, Sebha. As previewed by Dexter Filkins in a fascinating New Yorker profile, Hanif’s libretto leaves the dictator off-stage and represents him only in the form of a sardonic song performed by his aide-de-camp:
When you’re forced to bugger
200 million people
You need time to recover.
After you have rigged the elections
After all your positive actions
You need a few moments of self–reflection
This will undoubtedly be a more invigorating night at the opera than yet another regional production of Nozze or Fille (sorry, Francesca, I’m not calling it “Daughter”).
Visiting Orchestras, and One Not-Visiting Orchestra
When Washington Performing Arts announced its 2016-17 season last spring, I took the absence of the Berlin Philharmonic, which is touring North America this fall, as a sign that the organization was shifting its resources away from pricey presentations of international orchestras toward other priorities. Looking at the Berlin Phil’s calendar, I saw there was an opening on November 8 that seemed like it would have been ideal for a Washington concert date. The orchestra’s final concert in Berlin before crossing the Atlantic is on November 5, and its tour doesn’t begin until November 9 at Carnegie Hall, leaving a gaping, D.C.-sized hole in its schedule.
As it turns out, and as I subsequently reported, WPA would have gotten the Berlin Philharmonic this season, if not for some unfortunate miscommunication among the orchestra, the orchestra’s tour manager, and WPA. While that revelation doesn’t make me feel better about missing out on Sir Simon Rattle’s final North American tour (which will also hit Boston, Ann Arbor, Toronto, Costa Mesa, and San Francisco), it is heartening, in a sense, that the oversight was inadvertent.
Washington will have to make do with the Royal Concergtebouw Orchestra, which will be performing Detlev Glanert’s Theatrum Bestiarum and Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 on November 29. Yes, we just heard the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra play Mahler 5 in April, but it’s still the Royal Concertgebouw, and they’ll be led by the wonderful Semyon Bychkov, whom I last heard in Vienna conducting an astounding performance of Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben.
The Royal Concertgebouw had a set program for its international tour that WPA couldn’t change. But presumably, WPA has a bit more leverage with the Philadelphia Orchestra, which it regularly presents in Washington. Yannick Nézet-Séguin is doing excellent work with the still fabulous Philadelphians, but this season’s program is an object lesson in what visiting orchestras should not perform: an unexciting soloist in an unexciting concerto (Louis Lortie playing the Chopin E Minor), followed by more over-familiar repertory, Stravinsky’s Petrouchka (Jan. 24). Next time, WPA, ask Yannick for some more interesting programming.
This season offers a rare opportunity to compare two very different soloists take on some of the most beloved music in the cello repertory: Bach’s complete Cello Suites. First up on October 16 at the UDC Theater of the Arts will be the American cellist Alisa Weilerstein, an intense and passionate artist most at home in the Romantic repertory. Weilerstein’s last WPAS recital in 2014, with pianist Inon Barnatan, offered deeply expressive readings of Debussy, Schubert, Shostakovich, and Rachmaninoff. It will be fascinating to hear her interpretations of the Bach suites.
Then on January 29, French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras performs the complete cycle at the Phillips Collection. Queyras’ recording of the Bach Cello Suites from 2007 is among my favorites, displaying the cellist’s supple and sensitive musicality. And the week before Queyras’ recital, the Phillips Collection will be present another solo Bach recital: the German violinist Isabelle Faust will perform three of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas, including the great D Minor Partita (Jan. 22). Faust’s recordings of the solo Bach repertory are lean, unfussy, and intense; I look forward to hearing her live.
Piano Competition Medalists
For better or for worse, piano competitions remain an important focal point in the music world and serve as launching pads for ambitious young artists seeking international careers. This season offers the chance for D.C. audiences to take stock of several recent piano competition medalists. By far the most intriguing piano recital this fall features the fascinating young French pianist, Lucas Debargue. Debargue, who was self-taught into his teens, finished fourth in 2015 Tchaikovsky Competition, polarizing opinion with the originality and eccentricity of his playing. (Technically, finishing fourth, Debargue was not a Tchaikovsky medalist, but he was honored with a special prize from the Moscow music critics.) Debargue’s Washington Performing Arts recital program includes pieces recorded for his debut CDs for Sony: four Scarlatti sonatas, Beethoven’s Op. 10, No. 3 sonata, Chopin’s Ballad No.4, and Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit (Nov. 12, UDC Theater for the Arts). Don’t miss it.
The Phillips Collection is featuring its own line-up of major competition medalists this fall: Denis Kozhukhin (winner of the 2010 Queen Elisabeth Competition) on October 16; Lukáš Vondráček (winner of the 2016 Queen Elisabeth Competition) on November 6; and Vadym Kholodenko (winner of the 2013 Van Cliburn Competition) on November 13.
Early Music at the Library of Congress
Early music lovers will encounter an almost embarrassment of riches in the Library of Congress’s fall season. Fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout, whose Mozart and C.P.E. Bach recital last fall at the Phillips Collection was a marvel of interpretive daring, expressive freedom, and technical resourcefulness, returns to Washington with a program of Beethoven and Haydn (October 26). The renowned British vocal ensemble, the Tallis Scholars, presents an evening of Renaissance music on December 6. British harpsichordist Richard Egarr, whose recent recording of Bach’s French Suites received a rave from my colleague Charles Downey, offers a recital highlighting 17th century English keyboard music (January 13). And on February 4, early music pioneer Jordi Savall, who performed a magisterial solo recital for viola da gamba last winter, comes back to town, this time with his early music ensemble, Hespèrion XXI, to perform a program centered on the Venetian Republic.
Listings: Highlights of the Fall Season
October 5: Mezzo Joyce DiDonato with the Brentano String Quartet, Kennedy Center Family Theater
October 16: Cellist Alisa Weilerstein (Bach solo cello suites), UDC Theater of the Arts
October 17: Tenor Mark Padmore and pianist Andrew West (Beethoven songs, Schubert’s Schwanengesang), Library of Congress, Coolidge Auditorium
October 18: Tenor Lawrence Brownlee, Kennedy Center Family Theater
October 26: Fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout (Beethoven, Haydn), Library of Congress, Coolidge Auditorium
October 28: Violinist Hilary Hahn and pianist Robert Levin (Bach, García Abril, Turk, Mozart, Schubert), Kennedy Center Concert Hall
November 3-5: National Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda conductor (Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet), Kennedy Center Concert Hall
November 12: Pianist Lucas Debargue (Scarlatti, Beethoven, Chopin, Ravel), UDC Theater of the Arts
November 13: Bass-baritone Eric Owens and soprano Susanna Phillips, with pianist Myra Huang (Schubert songs), UDC Theater of the Arts
November 29: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Semyon Bychkov conductor (Glanert, Mahler), Kennedy Center Concert Hall
December 6: The Tallis Scholars, Library of Congress, Coolidge Auditorium
December 6: Baritone Christian Gerhaher and pianist Gerold Huber (Mahler songs), UDC Theater of the Arts
January 13: Harpsichordist Richard Egarr, Library of Congress, Coolidge Auditorium
January 13 & 15: The Dictator’s Wife (world premiere), Washington National Opera, Kennedy Center Family Theater
January 19 & 22: National Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda conductor (Bernstein, Copland, Gershwin, Williams), Kennedy Center Concert Hall
January 22: Violinist Isabelle Faust (Bach Partita in E, Sonata in C, Partita in D minor), Phillips Collection
January 26-28: National Symphony Orchestra, violinist Gidon Kremer, Christoph Eschenbach conductor (Weinberg Violin Concerto, Shostakovich Symphony No. 8), Kennedy Center Concert Hall
January 29: Cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras (Bach solo cello suites), Phillips Collection
February 4: Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI, Library of Congress, Coolidge Auditorium