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The way it was in Washington

Never say never. I'm making one more pass at the vexed subject of the decade's greatest hits.

Obviously, anyone's top ten list reflects personal bias. (Here's another one I think is worth looking at: not mine, but my husband's.) And top-ten lists are so random that the same person can come up with several different ones. (One of mine specifically focused on the decade's top CDs.)

But a commenter on the last "best-of" post raised an interesting question by observing that none of my Top Ten moments of the last decade was specifically related to Washington.
(read more after the jump)

Certainly, my leaving Strathmore out of my list of new halls built during this decade was a major oversight. And Marin Alsop's arrival in Baltimore perhaps should have been mentioned. But I wonder what other Washington-area events would qualify among the top ten most important stories in the entire classical music field over the last ten years.

My own feeling is that one would have to make a top-ten list specifically devoted to Washington. So, in the waning hours of the old year, I throw it open to you: what are the most important things that happened in classical music in Washington between 2000 and 2009?

Here is an off-the-cuff list of my own suggestions, besides the abovementioned opening of Strathmore and arrival of Alsop.

  • The NSO's search for a music director; Iván Fischer's interim tenure.
  • The Washington Opera becomes the Washington National Opera; Plácido Domingo takes over as General Director in 2003; first simulcast in 2005.
  • Washington's choral scene undergoes significant changes: Robert Shafer founds the City Choir; the Master Chorale folds; Julian Wachner takes over the Washington Chorus. But J. Reilly Lewis and Norman Scribner celebrate 25 and 45 years at the head of their respective organizations.
  • Washington's early-music scene underlines its identity with the establishment of the Washington Early Music Festival.
  • The Wolf Trap Opera breaks ground with the blog of its director Kim Witman, revealing its whole audition process on-line, a huge service to young singers and a fascinating look behind the scenes for audiences.
  • Antony Walker takes over as music director of the Washington Concert Opera.
  • Notable operatic world premieres in DC include Democracy (WNO) and Volpone (Wolf Trap). The NSO performs new works by Mason Bates, Jefferson Friedman, Daniel Kellogg, and Jennifer Higdon. And the Verge Ensemble, 21st Century Consort, and the fledgling Great Noise Ensemble are among many local groups offering other significant premieres.
  • Michael Kaiser comes to the Kennedy Center.
  • The National Chamber Orchestra becomes the National Philharmonic; the Fairfax Symphony gets a new music director.

But I didn't get to town until 2008, and I know I've left things out. Please chime in.

By Anne Midgette  |  December 31, 2009; 6:20 AM ET
Categories:  Washington , random musings  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: In performance: Sharon Isbin
Next: New year, new season


More of a lifetime-achievement thing, but the Washington Bach Consort actually completing its cycle of performing Bach's cantatas live (in 2007, I think) was a biggish moment.

The creation of the Post-Classical Ensemble in 2003 has been a big deal for DMV classical life.

There are probably more I'm not thinking of now. If so, I will comment further.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | December 31, 2009 7:39 AM | Report abuse

I too was disappointed that Ms Midgette's column featured no 'local' events, concerts or triumphs. It seemed to be part and parcel, however, of an increasing loss of interest in the region. As Ms Midgette herself says, she has 'only' been here since 2008; but many of us are transplants and we make all the greater effort to embed ourselves in the region and to be part of the cultural life of the capital and its suburbs. Ms Midgette needs to take this on as part of her job rather than throw her hands up and say "over to you", as she has here. She can actually be more than a mere reflection - her position at the Post can be part of a drive to ensure the area not only continues to produce high quality music but that it strives ever harder to offer eclectic, uncomplacent, challenging and engaging work for a variety of audiences. Covering what is happening here, rather than in New York or LA, would be the first step. For example, Augustin Hadelich - who The New Yorker's Alex Ross referred to as "a young artist with no evident limitations" (that should attract Ms Midgette's New York-centric interest?) - will be performing with an orchestra for the first time in the region this coming month. That it is with the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra, rather than some more swooping-in-and-out-of-town band, is all to the good. Attention should be paid.

Posted by: rupeerosie | December 31, 2009 9:05 PM | Report abuse

As the chief classical music critic at the Post from 1995 through 1999 and then again from the end of 2001 until Anne took over in 2008, I thought I might weigh in on this topic.

Two organizations seem to be of continuing excellence -- the Vocal Arts Society and the Hayes Piano Series. I've rarely heard a poor concert from either group.

Heinz Fricke vastly improved the playing of the orchestra at the Washington Opera.

The discovery and promotion of the marvelous tenor Laurence Brownlee by Washington Concert Opera, which employed him on several occasions of thrilling singing. I was also grateful to hear so much rare Rossini from this group.

Leonard Slatkin's tenure at the NSO was not without its problems. Still, he left the orchestra a stronger ensemble than he found it and the NSO's best evenings (usually, after 2003 or thereabouts, conducted by other leaders -- Masur, Maazel, Dohnanyi) found the orchestra in terrific shape.

Alsop has brought a lot of new buzz to Baltimore, yet I am sure I am not alone in preferring the artistry of her predecessor, Yuri Temirkanov. He had myriad personal problems and ended up with a cancellation record that Teresa Stratas or Glenn Gould might envy. But when he was ON, one was in the presence of a great musician summoning extraordinary playing from his forces. I hope I'll hear those performances in my head forever.

Off-Washington, let me add my voice to the choir of praise for Gustavo Dudamel, whom I heard conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Mozart and Berg, and who strikes me as the Very Real Thing.

I read you every day, Anne, and am very proud and happy that you are my successor at the Post. Say hi to the gang on 15th Street -- and the Happiest of New Years to you and Greg.

Posted by: TimPage1 | January 1, 2010 8:52 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for the shout-out, Anne - both for the blog (which continues to be a blessing and sometimes curse:)) and the VOLPONE premiere.

I'm writing to append Tim's comment and claim my friend and colleague Larry Brownlee as Wolf Trap's "discovery" - for he appeared with us first in the summer of 2001. (I'm sure Larry will be flattered to have us fight over him.)

Here's to the next decade of great music in Washington!

Posted by: kimpwitman | January 4, 2010 12:23 PM | Report abuse

Here's my 10-list of certainly not best of but still top newsworthy and local items to me, not in any particular order:

1) The demise of the Baltimore Opera Co and all the little baby opera companies that sprouted up afterwards. This is sort of a worst moment and best moment in one.

2) The closing of Tower Records in Foggy Bottom in 2006. It had that wonderfully large second floor room with countless classical music CDs - more classical music CDs than any other store had of all types of music. This is a national story with local impact to classical CD-browsing buyers.

3) WETA becoming an all-talkie in 2005, and then two years later WGMS dropping classical and WETA picking it back up again. Sure, the format still sucks (no songs, nothing modern), but I still listened way back when. Need I mention the Redskins Red Zebra-Snyder back story on this? As if there wasn't enough hatred of the man.

4) The Strathmore opening with concerts by the BSO. Alsop's hiring is included in here, both the initial uproar from the musicians and today's success story. A little friendly competition for the NSO is a good thing... and the Metro ticket is cheaper than the Amtrak ticket.

5) Clarice Smith Performaning Arts Center opening, with the commissions and the William Kapell competition. Perhaps this is a bigger deal to me because I'm still a Ph.D. student at UMCP.

6) Yo-Yo Ma fakes it at the Obama inauguration. This needs to be on my list because it is just too funny. I'm standing out there freezing foolishly thinking "I wonder what strings he's using?"

7) Can all the local blogs be listed as a major new source for classical music fans? Sure, why not! I'd hate to mention one and leave others out though.

8) WNO - The redesign of the Opera House ( 2003/4), the Domingo Cafritz Young Artists Program (2002), the studio in Takoma Park (2004?). I guess it should also be mentioned the trend of fewer operas per year.

9) NSO - The pricipal conductor search (fiasco) to replace Slatkin has to be on any list, right? I can't wait for a Post editor to write a headline "Eschenbach's Bach is Back" or some variant thereof.

10) NEA Opera Honors? Yes, they're located here. There is the argument that this money should go to people who might actually be doing something new and creative in the genre, but the NEA money is paltry to begin with. These honors are about generating buzz to encourage the private sector to donate to a worthwhile art.

Posted by: prokaryote | January 4, 2010 5:09 PM | Report abuse

Prokaryote, I think that this is an excellent list and a much better one than Tim Page’s list, above. Thank you.

While I agree with Tim Page on Yuri Temirkanov’s extraordinary although difficult leadership of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, I disagree that Leonard Slatkin left the National Symphony Orchestra better off – (more respected??) – than under his predecessors, the also extraordinary Mstislav Rostropovich and Antal Dorati.

Fortunately, the National Symphony Orchestra, overall music programming at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and the Washington National Opera/Washington Opera will all soon be under new leadership. And not a minute too soon (we hope ... stay tuned)!

Prokaryote, would you be interested in running for Washington Post chief classical music critic?

Just as importantly, unlike Tim Page and Anne Midgette (but like Washington Post chief music critics Paul Hume and Joseph McClellan) , if hired will you commit to residing during your Washington Post tenure not in New York City but somewhere in the Greater Washington Region for at least about 10 or 11 months of the year?

(Ms. Midgette’s Wikipedia site – which I imagine is repeatedly edited for her by her husband -- gives her living in Manhattan and Warwick, New York, for at least the past three years. And she has never stated that she divides her time between New York City and the Washington, D.C. area.)


PS. Can we add to your list the opening of the extraordinary Jane and Sidney Harman Performance Hall (775 seats) and the Smithsonian Nan Tucker McEvoy Auditorium (346 seats)-- both at Metro Center – Jane Lang’s extraordinary 60,000 square foot Atlas Performing Arts Center in N.E. (four theaters), American University's new Katzen, Abramson (214 seats), and Greenberg (296 seats) Performance Halls, and the Phillips Collection’s recent new music commissioning program?

Of course, we wouldn’t expect the current Washington Post music critics to have taken notice of such non-elitist, democratic, (and non-German) all local music developments.

Posted by: snaketime1 | January 5, 2010 10:31 AM | Report abuse

1) My list
Midgette's list is very formal (a couple organizations changed names, four new directors are half the list) and influenced by her recent work. But, I can understand the problem here. She came to the Post in 2008 and its hard, for me at least, to expect her to know what happened when she wasn't here. Just as it would be hard for me to know pre-mid 90s. (Even now!)

Page's list is very personal (groups that made good music or improved, or people). It is a different sort of list, and one might have with an issue with it if they disagreed with his assessments of particular performance groups. I think the problem here is the opposite of before. Because Page does not live here anymore, he is too nostalgic.

There is nothing wrong with either list when you consider their perspective. But for my list, I didn't want to have too many of the same type of item, and despite being an AU alum, I think the openings of Strathmore and Clarice Smith trump the openings of the Katzen Arts Center, the Harmon Center for the Arts, etc. But wow, do these openings happen every decade! I wanted a local list, so only one national-local scope event (NEA Honors) and one or two extended local events (BOC, Alsop). I did want to include one closing due to the economy (BOC). And something related to technological changes (the local blogs, and in some manner Tower's closing and radio). And something about new directions (NSO search, Alsop). And something about how an organization(s) has changed or grown for better or worse (WNO). I also tried to avoid performances because relatively few people would have seen any particular performance. The one exception was the well-attended inaugural, which is actually a non-performance performance (a Yo-Yo mime). If only Slatkin had murdered a cellist or something...

2) Midgette's residency status
She does live here part time:

This was a Xmas day 'articlet' and was not included in the blog I think. I did wonder myself about this, knowing the prior comments from readers about out-of-town Posties.

3) Washington Post chief classical music critic
Do I get free admission everywhere? Alas, I'm not sure this is an elective office. And I feel my superior ability to create a top 10 list does not qualify me to be a good critic. Too much pressure to pan or praise performances.

There is an old article by Michael Dirda (Post book critic) about what to get out of a review that seems to translate well for me in classical music criticism too. Anyway, being a subscriber to the NY Times, I have some familiarity with Midgette's work and the adjustment or transition of reading her reviews in the Post might be easier for me than for others.

4) Midgette's wikipedia stub
I can't tell you who has done the latest anonymous edits, but it isn't too hard to figure out who created the entry. (This isn't that hard to figure out and he is not anonymous in his wikipedia id.) It is not Sandow. Wikipedia is not very accurate on a number of up-to-date facts for stubs.

Posted by: prokaryote | January 5, 2010 4:25 PM | Report abuse

It would be hard for me to review 10 to 15 performances a month in DC if I didn't live in Washington. Guess I should check my Wikipedia entry. (Wikipedia used to state that Elisabeth Schwarzkopf's nephew was Norman Schwarzkopf. That, too, was wrong.)

I wouldn't necessarily list Harman Hall as a classical music highlight - the acoustics are problematic, to say the least.

Posted by: MidgetteA | January 6, 2010 1:48 PM | Report abuse

"I wouldn't necessarily list Harman Hall as a classical music highlight - the acoustics are problematic, to say the least." (Anne Midgette)

But Anne, many of your "alt-classical" groups that now perform at Harman Hall use microphones and loudspeakers and appeal to mini-ipod, mini-earphone schooled "alt-classical" fans. Are the acoustics really any worse than those at your beloved Le Poisson Rouge? (or the Austin City Limits Soundstage?) (Harman Hall's public spaces are very beautiful.)

Unlike Strathmore, Harman Hall was designed to fill a downtown mid-scale performance hall niche (at Gallery Place), and primarily to serve a superb local theater company that had outgrown its first two homes due to outstanding leadership and the high demand for its tickets. It is to be hoped that the classical music -- as well as 'alt-classical' music -- that comes to fill the hall over time will be of the world-class calibre of Washington's Shakespeare Theater Company, under Michael Kahn and Chris Jennings. (I'm still trying to contemplate how the Washington National Opera can conceivably think to program only five traditional opera productions a season under its new business model, and still pretend to be a "world-class" opera company.)

I don't recall DAR Constitution Hall, the original Avery Fisher Hall, the New York State Opera and Ballet Theater, the National Gallery of Art West Garden Court or East Building Auditorium, or the original Kennedy Center Concert Hall being acoustic masterpieces, either. I strongly hope that Harman Hall's acoustics can be improved as "alt-classical" audiences quickly mature into classical music audiences.

(Funny, when I moved to NYC to begin my musical career I lived in a fourth-floor East Village walk-up with human excrement in the corner of every landing.)

Posted by: snaketime1 | January 6, 2010 3:00 PM | Report abuse

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