This fall, the venerable Washington Performing Arts (WPA) returns to in-person programming for its 2021/22 season. From September to June, the company will offer 20 events across a remarkable range of art forms and artists — from choirs to choreographers, big bands to soloists and poets to pianists, often on the same bill.
WPA’s eclectic programming has all the hallmarks of a great party and celebration of the arts’ infinite variety: familiar faces, exciting newcomers, great music, show-stopping dancing and dazzling singing. And they’re mobile. With performances and partnerships throughout the District, there’s likely something for and near everyone.
President and CEO Jenny Bilfield says Washington Performing Arts worked to retain breadth of programming while planning the season — one unlike any other in the company’s 55-year history.
“There’s a blend of global visitors and local artists, and we focused on collaborations and partnerships and centering our artists in all their creativity,” Bilfield says. “We invited them to try something new.”
Many artists began by looking back. Themes of legacy and posterity reverberate throughout the season, by design. As Washington Performing Arts’ Director of Programming Samantha Pollack spoke with artists about potential projects, everyone was drawn to reflection — whether on Covid-19, social justice or other issues.
“The artists are reflecting our times with a determination to focus on beauty and hope and connections moving forward,” Pollack says.
An overture of sorts, “John Luther Adam’s Sila: Breath of the World “ returns to D.C., six years after its world-premiere. Musicians from The United Air Force Band will play the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer’s invitation to contemplate the natural world for passersby on the Kennedy Center’s REACH campus. This free pre-season event takes place September 26.
In a touching act of symmetry, piano virtuoso Matthew Whitaker — the last artist to perform in-person for Washington Performing Arts in March 2020 — opens the season with his quartet on October 15 at The Lincoln Theatre in Shaw. The Washington Performing Arts’ Children of the Gospel Choir will join Whitaker, a musician at his church every Sunday, onstage for a collaboration Bilfield calls, “holistic, electric and hopeful.”
In November, pianist and NPR contributor Lara Downes will explore stories of migration and transformation at Sixth & I, alongside former U.S. and Virginia Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Rita Dove and Thalea Quartet. Migguel Anggelo’s “English with An Accent” also centers on an immigration experience. Combining dance, theater, song and spoken text, this examination of the American Dream and the intersections of queer, Latinx and immigrant identities will perform at GALA Hispanic Theatre on April 1.
Washington Performing Arts Gospel Choirs return with one their most beloved events, “Living the Dream…Singing the Dream,” on January 30. The long-running choral tribute to the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. will fill the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with gospel and activist anthems sung by over 250 voices in a celebration of the power of harmony and community.
In May, violinist Johnny Gandelsman collages works by composers of diverse ages, races and genres for “This is America.” Born out of 2020’s groundswell of social justice work after the murder of George Floyd, Breoanna Taylor, and many others, the free concert speaks to the plurality of identities and experiences in the United States. The concert is free at co-presenter The Library of Congress.
While looking back, many performers discovered artists worthy of greater attention.
“Many artists spent a lot of time discovering and championing voices that may have been quieted or forgotten from the repertoire,” Pollack says. “They want to shine a brighter spotlight on those voices.”
“Hazel Scott’s 101st Birthday Celebration” celebrates such a voice. The actress, musician and activist was popular from the 1930s to the 1950s, when her star faded due to her HUAC testimony. Scott’s life and career was, in the words of Bilfield, “one of the most profound examples of art, culture, civil rights and feminist activism you can find in our country. So many roads lead to Scott and lead from Scott.”
A multi-event project, pianist Michelle Cann plays with The United States Air Force Band on February 5 and solo on May 25. In March, singer Davóne Tines and pianist Lester Green juxtapose hundreds of years of music, borrowing the structure of Bach’s Baroque mass, to study the canon of Black composers, including Margaret Bond, Julius Eastman and Tyshawn Sorey.
The sense of “return” continues with many of the season’s marquee names.
She sees these kinds of relationships as a particular joy and strength of Washington Performing Arts.
“An artist building their career today will grow and can return decades later,” Bilfield says. “I love that sense of timeline. I love that our audiences have a chance to hear someone [new], then can follow the artists and welcome them back.”
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