Troubled Year of Highs and Lows Finds Ensembles Seeking balance.(ARTS)(2002 YEAR IN REVIEW: CLASSICAL)

Article excerpt


In Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities," it is "the best of times and the worst of times." So it is in musical Washington as we draw the final curtain on the tableaux of a troubled 2002.

Hard hit, in some cases staggered, by the unpredictable aftermath of September 11, 2001, area music organizations struggled bravely to fill large concert halls and other venues early in the new calendar year. Fortunately, by the beginning of the new fall season, many ensembles had re-established equilibrium, but not all of them managed to survive.

Probably the worst musical event of the year was the sudden, catastrophic collapse of the Washington Chamber Symphony. Established more than two decades ago as the Handel Festival Orchestra, the Chamber Symphony under Music Director Stephen Simon watched its repertoire grow and mature over the years. The organization supported numerous chamber and children's concerts, frequently highlighting unusual music and unusual instruments.

World-premiere pieces were not uncommon, and most, but not all, of the ensemble's concerts were well-attended, particularly those held in the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater.

Then virtually without warning, the symphony, mired deeply and hopelessly in debt, ceased to exist in July. Understandably, no one in the organization was much interested in absorbing the blame for the catastrophe. During turbulent times like this, fiscal and jurisdictional problems bubble to the surface in any organization, but this implosion was ugly.

A batch of fine musicians were out of a fair bit of work they had been counting on, and faithful season subscribers were left holding the bag with considerably lighter wallets and nothing to show for their largesse. The whole nasty scene was reminiscent of the Colts football team sneaking out of Baltimore in 1984 under cover of darkness as it decamped to Indianapolis. It just didn't feel right.

The fallout from a musical death doesn't stop with underemployed musicians and costly dark nights at the Kennedy Center and elsewhere. The "magic maestro," as Mr. Simon was known to area children who frequented the orchestra's young people's concerts, also mounted a popular annual Christmas show in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. These concerts provided a rare opportunity for a few of the area's best amateur music troupes to join an augmented chamber symphony to sing in and ring in the treasured December holidays.

Over the years, members of the Georgetown Chorale, the Holton Arms Bell Choir, the St. Patrick's School Children's Choir, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and others reveled in their annual invitational gig on one of the world's best-known performing-arts stages. Now that, too, is gone. The whole Washington Chamber Symphony mess was never adequately explained.

Washington's vast horde of underemployed lawyers probably has a little something to do with that. In the end, however, it was the usual story.

Audiences were down, the money ran out, and no one in the organization seemed able or willing to rise to the occasion. As a result, an important component of Washington's musical richness is gone, probably forever.

Still here, fortunately, but often on life support, is an entirely different kind of organization, Washington's "In" Series of concerts. Unique in the metro area, the series specializes in cabaret performances with a strongly literary element, women's music, updated classic operettas and light opera and Hispanic classical music - particularly zarzuela.

Ensconced for many years on the campus of Mount Vernon College and frequently mounting its performances at the school's Hand Chapel, the series was bounced by a shortsighted George Washington University when it took over the smaller school. Performances have become fugitive things since then, although it has been fun to find the troupe in surprising new venues recently, including Arlington's Clark Street Theater, the auditorium in the National Museum for Women in the Arts and the public spaces of various embassies. …