Not Just ‘Dead White Guys’: Kennedy Center Artistic Directors Defend 2019-2020 Season  

The Kennedy Center's 2019-2020 classical lineup will include a mix of new commissions and traditional classics.

The Kennedy Center’s artistic directorial staff defended their calculus for choosing their collective 2019-2020 classical-music season during a media briefing and panel discussion earlier this week.

“There are people who write me and say please don’t put La Bohème in the season, and then there are those who write and say they never want to hear the pots and pans music again,” is how Francesca Zambello, Washington National Opera’s (WNO) artistic director defended her choices for this year’s roster during the panel, moderated by NPR’s Nina Totenberg.

L-R: Tazewell Thompson (librettist) Jeanine Tesori (composer) on 'Blue.' 'Blue' will be a part of the Washington National Opera's 2019-2020 season.
L-R: Tazewell Thompson (librettist) Jeanine Tesori (composer) of ‘Blue.’ ‘Blue’, an opera that explores the racial connotations of a police shooting of a black teenager, will be a part of the Washington National Opera’s 2019-2020 season. Photo by Cade Martin.

WNO’s current line-up does not include Bohème. It does, however, include Blue, a commission Zambello said she made after feeling “so troubled by the incredible amount of police violence against young black men in American today.” Blue explores the racial connotations of a police shooting of a black teenager, with score and book by Jeanine Tesori and Tazewell Thompson, respectively.

Among the National Symphony Orchestra’s (NSO) season highlights is, in celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday, his complete symphonies, to be performed – and recorded – under the baton of NSO’s music director and conductor Gianandrea Noseda, all within a three-week period beginning at the end of May 2020.

“Beethoven fought for universal brotherhood,” was how Noseda responded to Totenberg’s provocation that with his choice to focus on Beethoven, the NSO could be accused of, “celebrating some dead white guy, again.”

“I do not consider Beethoven a ‘dead white guy’. I consider Beethoven, Beethoven,” Noseda said, explaining how Beethoven, the Man, had a reputation for being politically incorrect and indifferent to the powers that be, and how Beethoven, the Musical Genius used his talents in service to humanity, such as in his breathtaking Ninth Symphony, ending as it does with a call to see beyond our differences and unite joyfully as one people.

Gianandrea Noseda conducting ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with the NSO at The Kennedy Center. Photo by Scott Suchman.

“These great giants are universal. That is why we love dealing with them,” added Joseph “Yossi” Kalichstein, the Kennedy Center’s Fortas Chamber Music Concerts artistic director. “One of the most touching things physically is to see the hole that Beethoven made in the Eroica [his Third Symphony] score, because he was so mad at Napoleon for turning out to be a fascist. There it is: he erased, hard, the dedication to him.”

For what it’s worth, the Ninth was first performed in 1824, and the Eroica in 1805, both in Vienna. The latter was written as Beethoven had believed in Napoleon Bonaparte the French Revolutionist who professed “brotherhood, liberty, and equality”, the former written after the composer had become embittered by Napoleon the power-obsessed dictator who had plunged Europe into unnecessary chaos.

Themes that, perhaps, might sound familiar to modern audiences, making what is old new, or at least au currant.

As it turns out, the Kennedy Center’s season will feature as many living composers as they do dead ones, ranging from Kevin Puts’s Brightness of Light, based on the letters between American artist Georgia O’Keefe and her photographer-husband, Alfred Stieglitz, and featuring American soprano Renee Flemming, to the aforementioned Beethoven. NSO members will perform in New York’s Lincoln Center for the first time under Maestro Noseda, with a concert version of Wagner’s Act II of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, featuring tenor Stephen Gould and soprano Christine Goerke, and former NSO artistic director and conductor Christoph Eschenbach, whose last official NSO duty was to conduct Beethoven’s Ninth, will return to conduct an evening of Dvorak and Schumann. Girl Power! a family concert focused on 100 years of women’s suffrage will also debut.

Soloman Howard. Photo by Jon Adjahoe.
Soloman Howard, 2019 Marian Anderson Vocal Award Recipient. Photo by Jon Adjahoe.

The Fortas Chamber Music Concerts season will similarly debut several commissioned works, including Libby Larsen’s Alone Together, performed by the male vocal ensemble, Cantus. Homage to Beethoven will continue with a selection of his piano trios, performed by the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio. To celebrate his receipt of this year’s Marian Anderson Vocal Award, DC native, basso, and WNO Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program alumnus, Soloman Howard will be in recital, part of a co-presentation between Fortas and WNO.

WNO’s season includes standards such as Verdi’s Otello – WNO’s first staging of this psycho-thriller in 20 years – as well as Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Don Giovanni. Saint-Saëns’ Sampson and Delilah will feature the debut of mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges. Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess will be performed on the heels of Blue, after that work is premiered first at Zambello’s artistic summer home, Glimmerglass Opera, in upstate New York. Additional contemporary highlights include the eighth season of the American Opera Initiative’s focus on in-house opera commissions.  

“Sometimes we are pushed to make boxes: modern music, Baroque music, classical music. We do not specialize in that. I want to break all the walls down. Our passion is fantastic music,” said Noseda during the discussion.

For details on the Kennedy Center’s full 2019-2020 season and to purchase tickets, go online.


  1. Ms: Fishburn,
    Keep pushing and asking difficult questions. The Kennedy Center organizations have 0 black people in the upper administration and in charge of programming! 0! Porgy and Bess while a great American opera has been also done too much. Duke Ellington(and DC native) had very strong words for this opera! Noseda is a good conductor but clueless in his programming and how to relate to other communities except for the European expats in town hardly original programming and why in the world does the NSO need to record the Beethoven Symphonies???? Why. WHo will buy it. People hardly buy non classical CDs why would anyone buy Beethoven with the NSO? They would help their mission by inviting black soloists and conductors and not pander to this community by having Brandy. The new leadership at the Kennedy Center is lacking in many ways but especially in programming.


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