The Fairfax Symphony Orchestra. Photograph by Barry Wheeler
For an art form that is supposedly dying, classical music certainly has enough practitioners in the Washington area. There are so many regional orchestras, both professional and volunteer—over 30, by one count—that it is hard to keep track of them all. The advantage of these organizations is that one of them may be relatively close to where you live, especially convenient for those who live in the suburbs, and the ticket prices tend to be lower than the two leading orchestral ensembles in the area. At the same time, from what I have heard anyway, the musical quality is, not surprisingly, correspondingly lower. Whether that is a fair trade off is a matter of a listener’s personal taste. These ensembles do still offer musically rewarding experiences that enrich their local communities, and they may be more welcoming and appreciative of the their audience’s support. For the listener interested in hearing more unusual repertoire, these smaller ensembles sometimes take bigger risks, too.
The National Philharmonic has the luxury of playing in one of the most beautiful orchestral acoustics in the area, the Music Center at Strathmore. Perhaps for that reason, the ticket costs are roughly equal to those of the Baltimore Symphony and National Symphony. The all-professional National Philharmonic does offer an excellent option for introducing the young person in your life to classical music: Kids can get a free ticket when accompanied by an adult paying full price. Next season includes Corigliano’s Red Violin concerto (October 1 and 2), Amy Beach’s Grand Mass in E-flat Major (November 12), and the Martyrdom of St. Sebastian to honor the 150th anniversary of Claude Debussy’s birth next year (May 19), plus a lot of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and other favorites.
The Fairfax Symphony Orchestra has been doing quite well under its music director, Christopher Zimmerman, whose tenure began in 2010. This professional group performs regularly at both the George Mason University Center for the Arts in Fairfax and the new Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas. Unusual pieces in their lineup for next season include more Corigliano ( Three Hallucinations, September 17), Ginastera’s Harp Concerto (November 12), Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 (January 14 and 15), and Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony (March 17 and 18).
The all-professional Alexandria Symphony Orchestra makes its home in Alexandria’s Schlesinger Concert Hall. With a season focused on the theme of dreams, programs include new music by David Balakrishnan, of the Turtle Island String Quartet (October 8 and 9), and a lot of familiar favorites. Also based in Alexandria is the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra, a small group made up of members of the National Symphony Orchestra, with three concerts scheduled at the George Washington Masonic Memorial. The musicians play a lot of music one is unlikely to hear anywhere else, including this year pieces by Adamo, Boyce, Honegger, Françaix (another centenary next year), and Finzi.
If you want to stay in Arlington, the Arlington Philharmonic is a community orchestra of volunteers, playing concerts in the auditorium of Washington-Lee High School. They have two concerts scheduled so far, on November 6 and April 22, and admission is free, although a donation ($20 suggested) is requested to help cover costs. Emil de Cou will lead the Virginia Chamber Orchestra in another season, for listeners who want to go no farther than Annandale. This includes some more Debussy, the Overture and Scene from Diane au bois arranged by de Cou (October 23). The Loudoun Symphony Orchestra, a community orchestra, began playing in an auditorium at Virginia Academy in Ashburn last season, where they will have a few orchestral and chamber concerts next season. Listeners in McLean can choose among the McLean Orchestra, playing in the Oakcrest School, the McLean Symphony, playing at the McLean Community Center, the Amadeus Orchestra, and a recently founded group called CounterPoint. Other Virginia ensembles include the Ars Nova Chamber Orchestra in Vienna and the Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic, which gives concerts at Alexandria’s Bishop Ireton High School among other venues.
In Maryland, you can try the Prince George’s Philharmonic, with concerts in Largo, Bowie, and College Park; the Symphony of the Potomac, in Silver Spring; and the rather adventurous University of Maryland Symphony, in College Park. Farther afield, there is the Maryland Symphony Orchestra in Hagerstown; the Peabody Symphony Orchestra, in Baltimore; and the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, in Annapolis. In the District, there is the Washington Sinfonietta, with concerts presented at National City Christian Church; the Capital City Symphony, based at the Atlas Performing Arts Center; and the CUA Symphony Orchestra, composed of students at Catholic University.
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