City On A Hill

Can an entire arts ecosystem exist in under one roof? In one building? Usually we think of an arts scene as drawing power from a broad community reaching into different pockets of a city, something like electrical outlets that artists both feed into and off of. At the Kennedy Center, both of these things are true – it’s very much a part of the city, and a city onto itself – and until I started to spend some time here, I never appreciated how much astonishing and vibrant work is happening in the nation’s arts center.

In the past two months alone, I’ve experienced remarkably fresh thinking in a place that, fairly on unfairly, maybe has the perception of possessing a certain institutional arthritis. That’s starting to change in a big way.

One program featured two genius pianists (at least by the designation of the MacArthur Foundation). Jason Moran, the gifted charismatic leader of Kennedy Center Jazz, invited classical mindfreak Jeremy Denk to share a program on his Jason+ series. Jason has a broad idea of how jazz intersects with the larger constellation of performing arts, and this series often brings outside-the-field musicians into the jazz conversation in novel ways.

In this concert, each pianist approached the other. Jeremy played selections from the classical repertoire that touch on jazzy rhythms and harmonies, with works from Hindemith to Ives to Nancarrow.  Hearing them alongside Jason’s performances of Thelonius Monk, Duke Ellington, and others, I started to rethink some of my perceptions of all of them. The connective tissue between Ellington and Nancarrow probably runs much deeper than I’d realized. At the end of the concert, the two pianists drifted back and forth from piece to piece – and we were all mesmerized.

A few weeks later we launched the opening of KC Jukebox, a new-music series experimenting with new formats and presentations, with a show called Lounge Regime: 100 Years of Ambient Music. I’ve become something of an evangelist on the topic of presenting music in new ways, with my classical/club show Mercury Soul requiring complex production and stagecraft in alternative venues. But I’ve never migrated a huge crowd through three different spaces as we did on the first KC Jukebox.

It was a true experiment for all involved. The audience embarked on a journey through a century of ambient music, walking through three period-appropriate lounges as the night progressed. The sleek 21st Century lounge featured DJ’d electronica (Brian Eno, Aphex Twin, Mouse on Mars); a trippy 1970’s space presented California minimalism (LaMonte Young and Steve Reich); and a vast hazy Parisian lounge at the end, with Satie’s ‘furniture music’ of the 1920’s.  Guiding the listener was projected information, a key part of my curating projects: “ambient information” floating on walls and flatscreens about the music and the eras they inhabited. That a soldout crowd of five hundred Washingtonians turned out for KC Jukebox is an indication of D.C.’s appetite for artistic adventure.  (Check out the video below for a snapshot of the event.)

That hunger could also be seen in the well-attended premieres of three mini-operas commissioned by Washington National Opera, whose American Opera Initiative brings together budding composers and librettists. The idea is to create 20-minute operas that touch on contemporary American themes. The WNO provides excellent singers, a chamber orchestra, and even a bit of costumes and staging. There is a lot of interest in new opera these days, with companies large and small commissioning new works – so it’s especially important that composers and librettists have bite-sized opportunities to learn the ropes. This is yet another way that Francesca Zambello continues to make a huge impact on new opera. After mounting the hugely successful new production of Philip Glass’ Appomatox last month, she then reminded us this month that she also nurtures young composers too.

To cap all this, I walked onto stage this week with the National Symphony to join an astonishing program of American music. The oldest piece was Copland’s Billy the Kid; the newest was my Mothership. In between those poles was the marvelous Dance Overture by Paul Creston – a mid-century American composer who should be revived more often – and the fantastic Toccata Festiva of Samuel Barber.

This is a stunning and strange tour de force for organ and orchestra. Cameron Carpenter proved once again that he is one of classical music’s most compelling emissaries, with all appendages flying as he tore through the mini-concerto. (A high point was the pedal solo in which Cameron looked like he was tap-dancing.) He followed the Barber with his own improvisations, which not only pushed the instrument’s sonic limits but also included insightful political commentary. At one point Cameron was touching all four manuals at once. Not content to have his fingers on four different keyboards simultaneously, his legs were flying around too.

This was the kind of symphonic concert that shows hidden depths of the repertoire and exhilarating surprises. I was particularly happy to come back because, in no small way, the National Symphony pushed me into an artistic breathrough. Leonard Slatkin and the NSO took a chance on me eight years ago with the commission of Liquid Interface, a symphonic-length work that travels through water’s different states with high drama (the work opens with recordings of glaciers calving and climaxes with a Katrina-like flood). The NSO gave me a big platform to push symphonic form into a narrative direction with new sounds, and it’s the piece that initiated my relationship with both Riccardo Muti and John Adams. So I’ll always have a soft spot for the NSO, and it was very touching to have so many players come up to me during rehearsal to reminisce about that premiere. It’s one of the rare orchestras that plays superbly and has a warm attitude, and I look forward to working with them again in April.

So there’s quite a lot of fresh thinking happening under this big roof, and it’s happening in a lot of different ways.  Think of it as arts ecosystem, or a city on a hill.  Come join us sometime.