by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, April 2, 2012.
There was brief elation when the huge marble box on the Potomac opened its doors. Richard Nixon, in a conversation with Ginger Rogers, pronounced the architecture “terrific” and the concert hall “acoustically very good.” (The Oval Office tape recorder captured the exchange.) But a mist of disappointment soon settled over the building. “The Kennedy Center: What Might Have Been” was the headline for a piece by the Times critic Harold Schonberg, who lamented that the new structure was a cluster of conventional spaces rather than a teeming and versatile showplace. Indeed, the Kennedy Center turned out to be one more arts compound in a familiar mode—a cultural shopping mall connected far more intimately to its parking garage than to the life of the city around it. (The nearest Metro station is half a mile away, and at night it’s a less than festive walk.) Moreover, the acoustics of the concert hall proved problematic, Nixon’s opinion notwithstanding: players could hardly hear one another, and the sound seemed to crumble in the air.
I grew up a couple of miles from the Kennedy Center, and had many memorable experiences there as a kid, hearing Antal Doráti conducting the Mahler Second, Erich Leinsdorf and the New York Philharmonic tearing into Richard Strauss, Henryk Szeryng playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto, and new works under Mstislav Rostropovich. In March, I returned for several performances by the National Symphony and the Washington National Opera, and, as on other visits, I felt saddened by the rapidly aging bombast of the place—the cavernous, flag-bedecked corridors; the elephantine chandeliers; the acres of red carpet, suitable for a diplomatic walk-a-thon. Ada Louise Huxtable was piling on when she called the architecture “gemütlich Speer,” but she had a point.
Schonberg may have been right, though, when he wrote that the Kennedy Center was “as good a compromise as could have been expected.” Only during the Cold War, when politicians feared falling behind the Soviets in cultural as well as military terms, could the scheme have gone ahead. (Nixon, mocked for his kitsch tastes, did his part; during his Presidency, federal arts spending grew nearly tenfold.) No such spur now exists for the support of culture, and vague hopes that Barack Obama might reverse Washington’s default policy of indifference to the arts have yet to be fulfilled. In a way, it’s amazing that the Kennedy Center even exists. At night, seen from the Whitehurst Freeway, it has a phosphorescent beauty, like the ghost of another America.
Since 2001, the Kennedy Center has been led by Michael Kaiser, an administrator with a knack for rescuing troubled institutions. The center wasn’t exactly falling apart when he arrived, but it was running a deficit and lacked focus. Kaiser, who has an almost Johnsonian flair for conjuring money, erased the deficit, and even during the recent economic downturn he continued to raise funds for large-scale projects, publicly insisting that arts organizations should remain ambitious in times of crisis. But the goal of making the Kennedy Center an “arts destination,” as Kaiser has put it, is some ways off. Running now is a festival entitled “Budapest, Prague, and Vienna,” with joint presentations by the National Symphony, the Washington National Opera, the Eisenhower Theatre, and the chamber series at the Terrace Theatre. It’s fairly meaty programming, ranging from Mozart and Beethoven to substantial helpings of Bartók and smatterings of Ligeti and Kurtág, but I’m not sure how many out-of-towners are rushing in to see the more familiar repertory. Next season brings a “Nordic Cool” festival, raising the spectre, as Anne Midgette joked in the Washington Post, of projects called “Latin Passion” and “The Inscrutable East.”
Bolder concepts would be welcome, along the lines of the San Francisco Symphony’s brazenly dissonant “American Mavericks” festival, now under way at Carnegie Hall. Then again, Kaiser probably knows the limitations of his audience. Washington has a peculiarly transient population, its makeup shifting with each political turnover, and, historically, it’s been difficult to build a following for less traditional programming. When, back in the mid-eighties, Peter Sellars was hired to direct theatre at the Kennedy Center, all manner of wild experiments unfolded, and attendance plummeted. Still, D.C. neighborhoods like Adams Morgan and the U Street Corridor have developed sizable populations of arts-minded young professionals, and the center might find a new audience there. The problem, as ever, remains the building itself, which is designed for suburbanites in cars.
The good news is that the National Symphony seems to be on an upswing. For decades, it has been stuck in the second tier of American orchestras; Rostropovich, during his long, affable reign, did little to improve the quality of the ensemble, and Leonard Slatkin, his successor, lost momentum after a strong start. Christoph Eschenbach, exiting a tempestuous tenure at the Philadelphia Orchestra, took over in the fall of 2010, and under his direction the orchestra is playing better than it has since the Doráti days. (Slatkin, meanwhile, has evidently made a happy landing at the Detroit Symphony.) Some fine young players have joined the ranks in recent years—among them, the oboist Nicholas Stovall—and the ensemble has tightened up, despite the inferior acoustics of the concert hall, which a 1997 renovation improved only up to a point.
Eschenbach’s two major offerings in the “Budapest, Prague, and Vienna” festival were concert performances of Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” and of Beethoven’s “Fidelio.” The casting was strong: Michelle DeYoung and Matthias Goerne led the former, Melanie Diener and Simon O’Neill the latter. There were imperfections in the playing, but I was struck by the vehemence of the climaxes—the opening of Bluebeard’s fifth door made a splendid roar, with DeYoung holding her own against the tumult—and by the intensity of the sotto-voce episodes, such as the end of Act I of “Fidelio” and Bartók’s black-as-night coda. There and elsewhere, Eschenbach molded sound into gestures, gestures into emotions. The conductor, who has also been deploying his formidable skills as a pianist, has assumed the additional title of music director of the Kennedy Center, and may turn out to be the artistic leader that this institution has long needed.
The Washington National Opera, by contrast, has been struggling. Plácido Domingo, who led the company from 1996 until last year, brought in big-name singers, but during his prolonged absences he let the financial side languish. The veteran director Francesca Zambello has begun serving as artistic adviser, with Philippe Auguin in charge of the orchestra, but the most significant development has been the absorption of the company, previously independent, into the Kennedy Center administration. Given the Jonathan Miller production of “Così Fan Tutte” that I saw in March—a modern-dress show with the frantically ditsy air of a soon-to-be-cancelled sitcom—the incipient change of direction is welcome. To have an opera company and an orchestra working in tandem is a rare and enticing prospect. Imagine if the Kennedy Center responded to an election year with a “Revolution” festival. Even New Yorkers might have to board Amtrak for that.
Bonus: Nixon in conversation with Ginger Rogers, Sept. 17, 1971.
For more of Nixon's thoughts on the Kennedy Center and other musical matters, go here.