The National Symphony Orchestra will return to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Jan. 14 for what the arts center hopes will be the first regular-capacity performances of a revised 2021 season.
The orchestra’s adjusted schedule begins in a more limited way later this year, with three concerts performed before a small, socially-distance audience in the Concert Hall and live-streamed. NSO Music Director Gianandrea Noseda will conduct the first two performances on Dec. 4 and 11 and Principal Pops Conductor Steven Reineke will lead the orchestra in a Holiday Pops program Dec. 18.
The schedule also features — conditions permitting — opera, dance and theater events on the center’s three large stages. The Washington National Opera will present “La Bohème” in June and the much-anticipated new work, “Blue,” in July. The arts center will also host the Broadway tours of “Oklahoma!,” “Hadestown” and “Dear Evan Hansen” next summer, as well as visits by the Paul Taylor Dance Company, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre.
Describing the schedule as “realistically optimistic,” Kennedy Center president Deborah Rutter emphasized that it is contingent on Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser’s reopening plan. Full-capacity audiences will only be allowed if Washington has reached Phase 4, which requires the availability of a vaccine and/or treatment for covid-19. Rutter said the arts center will consider smaller audiences if guidelines require. Phase 3, for example, allows theaters to have up to 50 percent capacity but no more than 250 people. The city is currently in Phase 2.
“I feel excited by the possibility and encouraged by the artists who are excited about coming back,” Rutter said. “We’re going to make a plan, and we can pivot if we need to, but we have to have plan.”
The schedule offers 675 performances, less than half of the 1,500 presented in an average season. It is built on a budget that is more dependent on fundraising than any prior financial plan, Rutter said. The Kennedy Center closed on March 12, laying off about 800 hourly and part-time workers. It furloughed 250 employees in early April, representing more than half of its administration.
“We’ve been keeping close tabs on how our patrons feel. We understand it is going to be a slow, gradual return,” she said. “We’d love to be able to seat as many people as possible. If we are not in Phase 4, we will seat in a different capacity.”
The safety of the artists and patrons is central to every decision, Rutter said. “It’s so difficult ... anticipating what you can or cannot do,” she said. “It would be a lot easier to say, ‘We’re closing the place down. Call us when it’s safe to reopen.’ But we need to have something to look forward to, that sense of shared experience, even if the shared experience is in a huge space and (everyone is) six feet apart.”
The arts center announced a slate of digital and small-scale in-person events for the fall, including sunset concerts at the River Pavilion and weekly Facebook live concerts as part of its new “Arts Across America” series starting July 27. Another expected highlight is “On Stage at the Opera House,” hour-long, no-intermission concerts for up to 200 people seated in a socially distanced manner on the theater’s stage, while the artists perform on a temporary structure erected over the theater’s front rows. This configuration allows audience members to enter through the loading doors on the arts center’s front plaza.
Also in the fall, the NSO and WNO will bring their music into the community. WNO begins its revised season with “Come, Hope,” named for an aria from “Fidelio,” the opera it had planned to perform this fall. Instead, the opera’s Cafritz Young Artists will use a mobile stage to visit the city’s eight wards and perform requests from the community.
Highlighting the NSO season is “Pivotal Moments, Powerful Voices,” a series of new works by living composers that includes commissions by Peter Boyer, Michael Daugherty and Julia Wolfe. Guest artists include Nathalie Stutzmann, Hilary Hahn, Conrad Tao and Emanuel Ax and the repertoire includes classics by Brahms, Schumann and Tchaikovsky and the rescheduled “Beethoven at 250” festival in May.
“I’m excited about our approach of putting a stake in the ground,” NSO executive director Gary Ginstling said. “We know there are challenges to get there. But we desperately want the NSO back onstage.”
The theater season begins in May with “Jesus Christ Superstar” and continues with six more productions in the Opera House and Eisenhower Theater through early September. The scheduling is intentional, Rutter said. Broadway tours are the few offerings that make money for the Kennedy Center, so hosting them later in the fiscal year makes sense.
The arts center will announce additional events — including comedy, jazz and hip-hop concerts — in the fall.
Kennedy Center representatives will be contacting subscribers with tickets for the previously announced seasons, and additional information is on the arts center’s website.