Orchestra Festival Lit Up Uniqueness Of U.S. Ensembles

The National Symphony Orchestra surprised passengers at D.C.’s Union Station during the SHIFT Festival (Jati Lindsay)

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The 2018 SHIFT Festival was hard to get your head around. On the one hand, it was pretty straightforward in that it presented four orchestras from across the country – the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, the Albany Symphony, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, and Washington’s own National Symphony Orchestra – to play adventurous programs at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

“There are 1,600 symphony orchestras in the United States, and SHIFT is all about shining a spotlight on how dynamic, how creative, how great they can be,” said Deborah Rutter, president of the Kennedy Center, which put on the festival in collaboration with Washington Performing Arts, the leading independent presenter of classical music in Washington.

The Albany Symphony’s new music group resounded in an unconventional venue.

But the Kennedy Center concerts were only part of the second annual festival, held April 9-15, and the other part of it was done at different places all over Washington at various times of the day and night, not exactly an easy schedule for a festivalgoer to follow. All of the orchestras held free “residency” events throughout the city designed to show how they are reaching new audiences. These ranged from the NSO giving a “pop-up” concert in the ornately restored great hall of Union Station, to the Albany Symphony’s new music ensemble, the Dogs of Desire, pounding out a jazz-pop-classical song cycle with vocalist Theo Bleckmann at a psychedelic arts center near the Navy Yard, to a bilingual Peter and the Wolf for mostly Spanish-speaking students performed by a Fort Worth Symphony chamber group and dancers.

The Fort Worth Symphony presented a bilingual “Peter and the Wolf” for D.C. students.
(Jati Lindsay)

“SHIFT is equally about the excellence that the orchestras bring to the Kennedy Center stage and the residencies that replicate some of the vital work they do in their own communities,” said Jenny Bilfield, president and CEO of Washington Performing Arts. “SHIFT wants to use the nation’s capital as a platform to underscore how smaller orchestras in certain communities are making an impact.”

SHIFT is similar to a previous orchestra festival, Spring for Music, held every spring from 2011 through 2014 at Carnegie Hall in New York, but the Washington version has the institutional and financial advantage of being presented by the Kennedy Center and Washington Performing Arts. (Spring for Music rented Carnegie Hall.)

The John F.Kennedy Center grand foyer leads to the Concert Hall.

“The economic model of SHIFT is truly philanthropic,” Bilfield said. The bulk of the funding is a $900,000 grant over three years from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, with $700,000 of it used to attract matching support. Each orchestra receives a $55,000 honorarium plus $15,000 for additional costs. The orchestras need to do fundraising of their own to cover expenses.

Washington was also the setting in April for the annual meeting of the Music Critics Association of North America, held in conjunction with SHIFT, and our members covered each of the concerts at the Kennedy Center as well as some residency activities. The full reports on CVNA are linked to the orchestras’ names in my notes that follow.

The Kennedy Center program that made the strongest, most purely musical impression on me was by the Indianapolis Symphony under its compelling music director, Krzysztof Urbański, a native of Poland who focused on composers of his homeland for the festival. Lutosławski’s thorny Cello Concerto was given a mesmerizing reading by soloist Alisa Weilerstein, whose passionate, quicksilver dialogue with the orchestra was deeply dramatic.

Urbański brought a huge Indianapolis force, including a children’s choir, for the Penderecki ‘Credo.’ (Tony Hitchcock)

Penderecki’s rarely performed Credo, a setting of the Nicene Creed, with the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir and the Indianapolis Children’s Choir, was overwhelming, complete with brass in the upper gallery. Noteworthy was the female vocal trio of soprano Erin Wall and mezzo-sopranos Renée Tatum and Alyssa Martin. Urbański cleverly prefaced his heavyweight program with the sparkling Orawa for string orchestra, drawn from a Polish folk dance by Wojciech Kilar.

Texas Ballet Theater joined the Fort Worth Symphony to perform Anna Clyne’s ‘RIFT.’
(Tony Hitchcock)

The more creative programs were by the two smaller (measured by budget) orchestras from Texas and New York. The Fort Worth Symphony, under music director Miguel Harth-Bedoya, gave the East Coast premiere of Anna Clyne’s RIFT, a dance piece with choreography by Kitty McNamee performed by Texas Ballet Theater. The score was full of the composer’s trademark eclecticism, from bubbly minimalism to rich cello for a pas de deux. Augustin Hadelich was the immaculate violin soloist in Bernstein’s Serenade. In a Fort Worth co-commission, Bel Canto: A Symphonic Canvas, Jimmy Lopez’s 30-minute orchestra suite from his opera based on Ann Patchett’s novel, filled the stage with a huge complement of musicians.

Albany novelty: Carol Jantsch in that rare thing, a tuba concerto. (Tony Hitchcock)

The Albany Symphony under music director David Alan Miller is known for its commitment to contemporary music, and the program it played had a water theme in four works by living composers. Pianist Joyce Yang was the brilliant soloist in two of them, Still/Rapids by Joan Tower and Three Manhattan Bridges by Michael Torke. Michael Daugherty’s Reflections on the Mississippi is that rare thing, a tuba concerto. The solo was played by Philadelphia Orchestra principal tuba Carol Jantsch, who is also featured on a new Naxos recording of it with Miller and the Albany orchestra. A winner in the catchy tune department was The Mighty Erie Canal, a children’s operetta by Dorothy Chang that was performed by three youth choruses from Washington.

National’s Gianandrea Noseda, a commanding figure on the podium.
(Scott Suchman)

Oddly, the National Symphony Orchestra program in its hometown hall was the least enterprising. Originally scheduled to feature the Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, its program was changed after his death from brain cancer in November to be a tribute to the friendship between the singer and the NSO’s Italian music director, Gianandrea Noseda. This curate’s egg of a program mixed and matched Russian and Italian composers, including Stravinsky’s Pulcinella after Pergolesi (et al.), Alfredo Casella’s orchestration of Balakirev’s virtuoso piano piece Islamey, and five of Rachmaninoff’s Etudes-tableaux as orchestrated by Respighi.

The lackluster concert was a missed chance to take the measure of Noseda in his first season as music director. Still, he was a commanding figure on the podium – as well as a charming presence during a MCANA panel discussion when the maestro acknowledged to a roomful of critics that, yes, he does read reviews.

Perhaps the NSO was distracted by its many residency events throughout the week, in which it combined the SHIFT mandate to get out of the concert hall and into the community with its own annual National Symphony Orchestra in Your Neighborhood initiative. Members of the orchestra gave nine outreach performances, including a chamber concert in the Congressional Cemetery and a family-friendly program on an animal theme at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. The other festival orchestras each had just a few residencies, limited by their brief stays in town. I made it to several of the events. The Union Station matinee concert drew a crowd of about 1,000, with lots of Amtrak travelers stopping a while to enjoy Noseda taking the orchestra through Rossini’s William Tell Overture, a suite of dances from De Falla’s Three-Cornered Hat, and other light classics. The NSO’s excellent concertmaster, Nurit Bar-Josef, shed her ski jacket (it was chilly that day) to play the “Meditation” from Massenet’s Thaïs.

With $25 tickets, attendance at the 2,454-seat Kennedy Center Concert Hall was 1,001 for Albany, 1,114 for Fort Worth, 1,662 for Indianapolis, and 2,133 for the NSO. The atmosphere was suitably festive, with Congressmen and -women and other politicos on hand to make pre-concert remarks, and you could pick up a different colored scarf for each orchestra.

Unfortunately, as far as I know, there was not a music journalist with a major publication from Indianapolis, Fort Worth, or Albany in Washington to document the superb performances of their orchestras on a national stage. That’s a sad reflection on the decline and fall of many metro newspapers around the country and the absence of robust, thoughtful local media to take their place in providing a high-profile forum for arts criticism.

Still, the presence of MCANA helped to put a spotlight on the festival. We also held several fine meetings, with panel discussions on SHIFT and the Washington performing arts landscape, as well as a revelatory session on how to cover #MeToo issues. This was especially helpful to critics whose repertoires may run more toward explicating sonata-allegro form than to the investigative, legal, and sourcing skills needed to report on sexual harassment by powerful men in classical music and opera. A highlight of the meeting was the presentation of the 2018 MCANA Best New Opera Award to the gifted young composer-librettist David Hertzberg, recognized for his The Wake World, which premiered last September at Opera Philadelphia.

SHIFT is taking a one-year hiatus, and the next festival is planned for 2020. “We wanted to pause to have the third one benefit from the first two,” Bilfield said. “If you’re going to make changes, you need time to process, download, discuss what we’ve learned, and apply that to the next iteration. We’ll see a third SHIFT. We already have the applications in. We’re meeting in the next couple of weeks to identify the next round of orchestras.”

John Fleming is president of the Music Critics Association of North America. He writes for Classical Voice North America, Musical America, Opera, and other publications. For 22 years, he covered the Florida music scene as performing arts critic with the Tampa Bay Times.