Last year at this time, Baltimore was just about to launch the ambitious, citywide Vivat! St. Petersburg Festival, a celebration of the 300th anniversary of the splendid Russian city. Museums and performing arts organizations, large and small, came together in a first-ever - and so far only - truly cooperative venture. The whole thing turned out to be a surprisingly effective experience that focused a lot of energy and talent on a single cause.
One of the best results of the festival was the risk-taking it encouraged. Had it not been for Vivat!, for example, the Baltimore Opera Company would not likely have staged Shostakovich's daunting Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (a crowning highlight of the festival). Opera Vivente probably would not have explored Stravinsky's little-performed Mavra. And the Handel Choir of Baltimore might not have delved into a lot of Russian liturgical music.
I wish the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which spearheaded Vivat! (music director Yuri Temirkanov initiated the concept), had veered off the predictable repertoire path for the festival. But compensation certainly came in the form of memorable performances as the BSO contributed to the musical thread that unified the community for a few weeks in mid-winter. A year later, I can't help but wish that some new thread could be woven through the city and give us another festival. It would be fun seeing diverse institutions come together again to provide insights into one particular time period or style or nationality. It would surely be rewarding for the public, too.
Lately, I've been reminded of what we're missing every time I drive to D.C. for another savory entree in the Kennedy Center's current Festival of France. I had the same thoughts back in December, when the center offered a Tchaikovsky Festival.
We can't keep everything conveniently under one roof, as the multi-theater Kennedy Center can, of course, but Vivat! proved we can get various venues around town in synch. And even if, for whatever reasons, we can't muster the spirit and resources for an all-city festival again anytime soon, there's no excuse why the BSO couldn't spice up each season with a festival by itself. That's what the National Symphony Orchestra keeps doing. In addition to collaborating on festivals that involve the whole Kennedy Center, the NSO regularly serves up something festive on its own - an exploration of music and film last year, for example, or, the year before, a look at what emigre composers achieved in the United States.
Given all the hand-wringing and soul-searching going on over at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall about re-energizing the existing BSO audience members and attracting new ones, I hope somebody notices how the NSO has been keeping its programming attractive. NSO music director Leonard Slatkin can be counted on to come up with interesting themes and build a festival around them to break up the routine of a concert season.
A few years back, he even found a novel, provocative way of boosting a Beethoven festival the NSO used to offer - he programmed Gustav Mahler's controversial re-orchestrations of the Beethoven symphonies. It was a terrific way of getting people to consider Beethoven (and Mahler) in a fresh way, and it didn't involve marketing gimmicks or light shows or dress-down outfits for the musicians. The music, and the concentration provided by a festival format, sold itself.
The NSO's programs for the Festival of France, which reflect Slatkin's breadth of interests, also illustrate how to keep ears and minds engaged. Some of the programs may have been overly stocked and perhaps not cohesively integrated, but it's hard to complain. Consider Friday's presentation. Even if it hadn't included such star power as soprano Renee Fleming and pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, the program would have been notable for the way it highlighted the expressive and coloristic range of French music.
Fleming caught the exotic languor of Ravel's Sheherazade in a luminous tone, with exquisite support from the Slatkin and the NSO (note the suave flute solo by Elizabeth Rowe, former BSO member). Arias by Massenet were likewise sung with abundant style and vocal creaminess, again sensitively backed by conductor and orchestra. And it was quite a luxury to hear her sing songs by Debussy and Faure accompanied by Thibaudet. (Fleming will be back for "The Art of the French Song" at 7 tonight in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and pianist Steven Blier. Call 202-467-4600.)
The French pianist also collaborated with the NSO in a brilliant account of Ravel's Concerto for Left Hand that built to a Bolero-like intensity. Throughout the evening, the NSO was in peak form under Slatkin's meticulous guidance; the taut, vibrant performance of Lalo's Overture to Le Roi d'Ys was but one example of how effectively everyone got into the French spirit.
Each single NSO program in the festival has provided an unusually rich opportunity to be immersed into the distinctive sounds, textures and emotions of French music. The total festival package adds up to a veritable feast.
Shriver Hall change
Due to illness, Ivan Moravec, the distinguished Czech pianist, has canceled his U.S. tour this month, which was to have included a stop in Baltimore. His replacement for the Shriver Hall Concert Series will be Brazilian-born, London-based Arnaldo Cohen, whose career was launched with a 1972 victory at the Busoni Competition.
Cohen's enticing program includes Schoenberg's Op. 11, Schumann's Fantasy in C major and Chopin's 24 Preludes. The performance is at 5:30 p.m. Sunday at Shriver Hall, Johns Hopkins University. For ticket information, call 410-516-7164.