May Classical Music Preview

Our picks for the best operas, concerts, and recitals of the month--including a celebration of the 150th anniversary of Claude Debussy’s birth.

By: Sudip Bose

Can't-Miss Shows

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Claude Debussy, and to celebrate, the National Philharmonic is dedicating two concerts to the work of the French master--the first consisting of some of the composer's most famous works, the second devoted to an intriguing rarity. May 5, conductor Piotr Gajewski will conduct the "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun," the "Rhapsody for Clarinet and Orchestra" (with soloist Richard Stoltzman), the "Fantaisie for Piano and Orchestra" (with pianist Brian Ganz), and "La Mer," that marvelous evocation of the sea that is perhaps Debussy's masterpiece. May 19, conductor Stan Engebretson is joined by vocal soloists Audrey Elizabeth Luna, Rosa Lamoreaux, Linda Maguire, and Eliot Pfanstiehl in the mystical and mysterious incidental music for Le Martyre de Saint Sébastian, a work that is hardly ever performed or recorded. Both concerts will be held at the Music Center at Strathmore.

The Dutch composer Michel van der Aa isn't only a master of inventive sound structures (both acoustic and electronic) that convey a tremendous amount of expression; he is also a composer ever conscious of the theatrical elements of performance. His works stretch the bounds of what a recital or concert can be, with instrumentalists often assuming the roles of actors. There isn't a better new music group these days than the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), which will perform several of van der Aa's works at the Phillips Collection May 10.

Jules Massenet's opera Werther, based on Goethe's 18th-century novel of unrequited love, The Sorrows of Young Werther, is one of the composer's most popular works, opulent and tragic and a great vehicle for its lead singers. The opera begins a run at the Washington National Opera May 12, with Emmanuel Villaume conducting a production directed by Chris Alexander. Tenor Francesco Meli sings the role of the doomed Werther, and mezzo-soprano Sonia Ganassi appears as his beloved, Charlotte.

It might be hard to get worked up over yet another performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9--jaded as some of us are. But on May 26, at the Music Center at Strathmore, the evergreen Ninth is paired with Anton Bruckner's transcendent and heavenly Te Deum, a work written "for the tongues of angels, heaven-blest, chastened hearts, and souls purified in the fire," as Gustav Mahler put it. Peter Oundjian (once upon a time the first violinist of the Tokyo String Quartet, and now a fine conductor) leads the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Baltimore Choral Arts Society in this demanding and difficult program, with vocal soloists Joyce El-Khoury, Mary Phillips, Brandon Jovanovich, and Morris Robinson.

Other Highlights

On May 6, pianist Benjamin Hochman performs works by Jörg Widmann (his Idyll und Abrund: Six Schubert Reminiscences) and Franz Schubert (the Sonata D. 850) in what promises to be an intriguing recital at the Phillips Collection.

Conductor Charles Dutoit leads the Philadelphia Orchestra, always a treat to hear, on May 11 at the Music Center at Strathmore, in a performance sponsored by the Washington Performing Arts Society. On the program: Claude Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun," Felix Mendelssohn's oft-heard "Violin Concerto" (with soloist James Ehnes), and Dmitri Shostakovich's driving, subversive Symphony No. 5.

On May 12, Marin Alsop leads the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in two lush, expansive works, at the Music Center at Strathmore: Serge Rachmaninoff's ever-popular Piano Concerto No. 2 (with soloist André Watts) and Edward Elgar's Symphony No. 1.

It's English and French fare at the May 12 performance of the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra at George Mason University's Center for the Arts. Music director Christopher Zimmerman leads performances of Henry Purcell's Funeral Music of Queen Mary and The Gordian Knot Untied, Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations, Debussy's La Mer, and Maurice Ravel's Concerto for Left Hand, with pianist Adam Golka.

Pairing the eminent classicist Franz Joseph Haydn and the Italian composer Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (famous mostly for some lighthearted comic operas) might seem odd--or perhaps inspired. You can judge for yourself, during two recitals on May 13 and May 20, when the heralded Raphael Trio will perform a Haydn trio followed by Wolf-Ferrari trio; at the Phillips Collection.

Has a contemporary violinist enjoyed a more fruitful and durable career than Itzhak Perlman? He appears at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on May 14, along with longtime accompanist Rohan de Silva, in a recital sponsored by the Washington Performing Arts Society. Perlman and de Silva will perform Franz Schubert's sunny and virtuosic "Rondo Brilliant," Johannes Brahms's wistful Sonata No. 2, three of Brahms's "Hungarian Dances," and the Sonata No. 2 by Serge Prokofiev, a lyrical work originally written for the flute.

Pianist Nelson Freire makes his National Symphony Orchestra debut, May 17 through 19, playing one of the massive works in the literature: Johannes Brahms's Piano Concerto No. 2. Guest conductor Andreas Delfs bookends the concerto with Franz Joseph Haydn's Symphony No. 83 and a rarity--Kurt Weill's Symphony No. 2.

Conductor Günther Herbig leads the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra May 31 at the Music Center at Strathmore, in three classic works: Mozart's Symphony No. 40, Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 (with soloist Jonathan Biss), and Franz Schubert's genial Symphony No. 6.

The Phillips Camerata performs two piano quintets May 27 at the Phillips Collection: Robert Schumann's famous work in E flat major and Dmitri Shostakovich's equally successful (if less-heard) quintet in G minor.

Christoph Eschenbach leads performances of two warhorses--Richard Strauss's "Suite from Der Rosenkavalier" and Beethoven's Symphony No. 7--with the National Symphony Orchestra, May 31 through June 2, and introduces a new work commissioned by the orchestra: "Blue Blazes" by the young composer Sean Shepherd.