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Community arts: under the radar

In his Huffington Post column yesterday, Michael Kaiser talks about the way that the arts have become interchangeable: traveling around the country he sees the same works, the same performers from one city to another.

It’s a phenomenon we’ve been bemoaning in classical music for years. Orchestras increasingly sound the same as they all recruit from the same super-talented international pool. The same soloists travel to different cities. Even arts festivals risk becoming a circuit; for a while it seemed that if you missed something at Paris's Festival d'Automne, you could catch it at Spoleto or the Lincoln Center Festival.
(read more after the jump)

It’s true that when something exciting happens in the arts, it’s nice if as many people as possible can see it. One of the great problems of live performance -- a “problem” only in an age that places a premium on reaching as wide an audience as possible -- is that its impact is restricted to people who are actually in the room on any given evening. In an day of mass spectacles and global communication, this makes such a performance almost negligible, hardly newsworthy: how many people does it actually impact? It impacts more, of course, if a performer goes on a multi-city tour; this also makes things more economically viable for the performer. But this leaves arts presenters in the position of fast-food consumers, choosing items from a limited, fixed, and familiar menu.

“Shouldn’t we be creating projects unique to the community?” Kaiser asks. Well, there are plenty of those around Washington. There’s the host of fine smaller orchestras -- the Alexandria Symphony, Eclipse Chamber Orchestra, the Fairfax Symphony, the Virginia Chamber Orchestra -- perpetually in the shadow of the NSO. There are all of the local early-music groups that band together every two years in the Washington Early Music Festival: the Suspicious Cheese Lords, the Countertop Ensemble. There’s the Capitol Woodwind Quintet, which has been playing together for more than three decades without a single personnel change; there’s the Ibis Chamber Music Society, with its season of free concerts around the city; there’s Voices of Washington, which is trying to take classical music to the streets, starting with its own contribution to a worldwide Complaints Choir movement with a musical litany of gripes about the city.

All of these groups help define Washington’s distinctive scene. And yet I wonder if Kaiser has this kind of group - the “community” group, for lack of a better term - in mind. Certainly he’s unlikely to be exposed to this level of group on his national tour. Each city is going to want to show him its best. When millions of dollars are spent on a new concert hall in a city or town, the people who put up the money want to reach a new national or international level. They want to be able to get Maurizio Pollini too, or Jeremy Denk, or the Kronos Quartet. And that’s well and good. But it’s also a reason that the local groups, the ones who play in churches and community centers and suburban theaters, who may not represent the very highest international standard of performance, aren’t the ones who come out when Michael Kaiser comes to town.

How do we define a “community” in the arts? It’s a question I think about a lot, and have written about before, as I try to work out what’s supposedly newsworthy. Kaiser has thought about it too. But I’d say that the Kennedy Center’s greatest contribution to community-building, to something that’s distinctively Washington’s, has been the Millennium Stage, with 365 days of free concert programming, from groups both national and local, of every stripe. I suppose you could argue that the Kennedy Center Chamber Players, made up of members of the NSO, is a Washington group. But in general: is the Kennedy Center “creating projects unique to its community?” Does it offer a sense of Washington’s distinctive music scene? I applaud Kaiser’s sentiments, and I think he’s touching on something that everyone in the field continually grapples with. I want to see more passion and artistic vision, too. But in terms of reflecting his community, I’m not sure that he himself is doing things all that differently from everyone else.

By Anne Midgette  |  June 8, 2010; 10:10 AM ET
Categories:  random musings  
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Next: Community arts: Michael Kaiser's response


The article is very informative, but missed the completely original National Chamber Ensemble
( ) , which just concluded its third season Saturday at the Rosslyn Spectrum Theatre. The concerts are of the highest artistic quality while being fun, interactive and really engage the audience in the musical experience.

Posted by: arlin31 | June 8, 2010 2:13 PM | Report abuse

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