It is 8:05 PM in the Kennedy Center Opera House. You take your seat for a performance of a world-famous ballet company, opera or the season's hottest musical. As the house lights dim, the unseen oboist in the orchestra pit sounds a single pitch. He is joined by woodwinds, brass, timpani, and strings as they tune their instruments. The evening's conductor makes his way through the pit, acknowledges both the orchestra and the audience's applause, and lifts his baton. With a wave of his hand, the performance begins.
The music fills the hall, but the musicians are nearly invisible to you. Who are they? Have they traveled with this renowned production from Moscow, London, or Broadway? Actually, they are members of this community, and may live just down the street from you. The Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra is the resident orchestra of the Kennedy Center, and provides the music for most ballet and musical productions that take place at the Center. Additionally, this orchestra has performed on the Millennium Stage numerous times and performs annually on the Concert Hall stage as part of the Messiah Sing Along. This same body of musicians provides the music for all of The Washington National Opera performances under the name The Washington National Opera Orchestra. Every year they reach a national audience with the CBS television broadcast of the EmmyEmmy® Award-winning Kennedy Center Honors. Spend a few moments and learn a bit more about the history of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra.
History of the Orchestra
Philippe Auguin, General Music Director
The year 1971 marked the long-awaited opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. On opening night, Leonard Bernstein's Mass was given its world premiere in the Opera House. Among the musicians performing in the orchestra was a group of Washington D.C. area artists who would become the nucleus for the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra. Throughout the early and mid-70's, these same musicians played for a dazzling array of world-class ballet companies and other Kennedy Center events, including annual visits by American Ballet Theater, New York City Ballet, Stuttgart Ballet, and Royal Ballet, world premieres of both Annie and 42nd Street, and operettas by the D'Oyly Carte Company of England. During the 1976-77 bicentennial celebration year, visiting opera companies included Bolshoi Opera, La Scala Opera, Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Opera. Kennedy Center musicians frequently played as extra, substitute, or off-stage musicians.
In 1978, this regular body of musicians organized and became the official house orchestra of the Kennedy Center. John Lanchberry was the first music director of the orchestra and was replaced by John Mauceri, who served as the music director for ten years.
During Mauceri's tenure, the Orchestra continued its busy seasons of playing for ballet, opera, and musical theater. Highlights of the 80's included the addition of annual visits by the Dance Theater of Harlem, the Washington Opera's televised world premiere of Menotti's Goya, starring Placido Domingo, and music theater programming of Oklahoma, Carousel, and two productions of West Side Story, each of which ran for several consecutive weeks.
In 1993, the world-renowned German opera conductor, Heinz Fricke, was appointed to the joint position of Music Director of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra and the Washington Opera. Throughout the 1990s, Maestro Fricke's vision for the orchestra became a reality – Never before had the orchestra garnered such artistic success. Thanks to his leadership and dedication, the orchestra reached a new level of excellence, and consistently receives favorable notice from the press. Maestro Fricke was named Music Director Emeritus upon his retirement in 2010.
In 1994, Kay Cameron began her tenure as the Music Director for Musical Theater and Television with The Center. Ms. Cameron brought artistic clarity to such works as the Words and Music Series, which included Bells Are Ringing with Faith Prince, Purlie with Stephanie Mills, and Where's Charley? with James Brennan and Emily Loesser. In the summer of 2002, the Kennedy Center self-produced the Sondheim Festival featuring 6 fully staged musicals, which received critical acclaim.
Also in the summer of 2002, under the leadership of Placido Domingo, The Washington Opera broadened its sights to include an international destination – Japan. 275 singers, orchestra musicians, chorus and crew flew to Tokyo as part of a tri-production tour of Otello, Sly and Tosca. There on the international stage, the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra was finally being compared to all others – And yet again, the orchestra rose to the artistic challenge with ease and heartfelt commitment.
Jay Crowder was appointed to the position of Music Director for Musical Theater and Television in 2009. A multiple Helen Hayes award nominee and winner for Outstanding Musical Direction, Jay was primary keyboardist and associate conductor for many Kennedy Center and metro area shows from 1999-present. This broad experience has benefited the artistic quality of various musical theater productions at the Kennedy Center, including the Center's own critically acclaimed production of Ragtime.
The Orchestra is currently under the direction of Philippe Auguin, who was appointed General Music Director at the beginning of the 2010-11 season. As one of the most sought-after conductors of his generation in both the operatic and symphonic fields, he regularly collaborates with leading opera houses and orchestras throughout the world. The Orchestra continues its successes and artistic excellence under Maestro Auguin’s expert direction.
Today the 62 musicians hail from China, Taiwan, Russia, Ukraine, New Zealand, and Spain, and all regions of North America. They are highly trained musicians who have attended the conservatories of Juilliard, the Eastman School of Music, Oberlin, the Curtis Institute, the Manhattan School of Music, and other leading music schools of the United States and Europe. A majority of the members hold advanced degrees in their field. Positions are filled through a highly competitive process of national auditions, and winning such an audition is a signal event in any musician’s musical career.
Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra members have performed with or been members of the National Symphony Orchestra, Atlanta Symphony, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Detroit Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, and many other prestigious orchestras. They regularly participate in the prestigious music festivals at Tanglewood, Aspen, Chautauqua, Spoleto, Grant Park, Grand Tetons, Marlboro, Meadowmount, and the Eastern Music Festival.
Additionally, many of the members give private musical instruction and serve on faculties of area institutions. Tutelage is provided at just about every institution of learning in the region including the University of Maryland, Catholic University of America, American University, Howard University, Georgetown University, George Mason University, Shenandoah College-Conservatory of Music, the Peabody Conservatory of Music Preparatory Department, Towson State University, the Washington Conservatory, and the Levine School of Music.