The "themes" for the season probably won't drive anyone into the concert hall: "Shakespeare" (a good year to use that one I suppose) and folklore (I mean, c'mon). At the least one would hope these themes were tied to an ambitious project or two, but mostly they seem to be justification for a lot of filler programming.
In the Shakespeare bucket, most of the material is new to me and may turn out to include some interesting curiosities (Smetana did something inspired by Richard III? There's a Korngold score for a Much Ado About Nothing film?) but none of it is likely to generate broader excitement. The folklore lineup provides a pretext for chestnuts from Rimsky-Korsakov and the like (though I will definitely be going to hear the suite from Cunning Little Vixen).
One of Music Director Designate Gianandrea Noseda's two appearances for the year (and definitely the choicer of the two) crops up under one of the Shakespeare headers: a complete reading of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet ballet. Noseda's lesser evening will find him proving he can hack it in Americana in the NSO's big Kennedy tribute evening, a program that will include John Williams' music from Lincoln and JFK, Copland's Lincoln Portrait, Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue, among other crowd-pleasers.
A more fruitful line of programming is the celebration of the 90th anniversary of beloved former maestro Mstislav Rostropovich's birth, offering a welcome emphasis on Russian works and a brief tour to Russia featuring cellist Alisa Weilerstein. Highlights include Eschenbach conducting Shostakovich Symphonies 1 and 8 and the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1, and James Conlon leading Shostakovich Symphony 5 and Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 1 with Lise de la Salle.
Soloist wise, a number of big names from recent years return next season, most notably Joshua Bell, who will take up a residency in February, much of which will be devoted to new works or TBD crossover programs. Lang Lang (opening ball something something), Emanuel Ax (Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1), Gidon Kremer (Weinberg Violin Concerto), and Hilary Hahn (Mendelssohn Violin Concerto), all turn up as well for a roster that is respectable, if not brimming with must-see soloist and repertoire combinations.
Missing from the line-up are any forays into concert presentations of dramatic works, often a highlight of the Eschenbach years, though there will be a few evenings requiring larger forces. These include Eschenbach's final NSO encounter with Mahler (Symphony No. 2), and the requisite Beethoven 9 torch song (featuring, FWIW, a strong cast including Joseph Kaiser and J'nai Brugger).
If one fact stands out about the season, it is the impressive line-up of new commissions, world premieres, and recent works new to the NSO. The Kennedy Center is paying a lot of lip service to new and/or American work as part of the JFK centennial year, and the NSO is doing its part with no less than 5 new commissions or co-commissions. This is a commendable thing, though whether it translates to enjoyable nights in the hall is yet to be seen. For instance, we're going to be getting a whole lot of composer-in-residence Mason Bates next year, which is good or bad news depending on how much you enjoy a techno bonus track on top of you regularly scheduled symphony.
The NSO cannot be fixed without its audience improving. Anyone familiar with the Washington classical music scene will have noticed a strange disparity between the uncurious, unenthusiastic, fair-weather crowd that goes to the Kennedy Center (the Washington National Opera crowd being the worst, but the NSO audience, which gives standing ovations only to reach for the car keys, not far behind)… and the world class chamber music audience, which is curious, excitable, stands in long lines to hear new acts or unknown music and which is discriminating and extremely knowledgeable. You find them in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Freer Gallery’s concert stage, at the Phillips Collection, at the National Gallery of Arts, at various embassies and residencies. How can these latter music lovers be coaxed to take a stake in the NSO’s future and presence?The chamber music scene Laurson describes builds on DC's considerable cultural advantages: 1) a smart, deep pocketed audience attracted by the government and its attendant industries; 2) foreign institutions providing support for and ready connections to international culture; 3) the prestige that ensures DC remains a destination for international artists; and 4) proximity to federal largesse.
While the NSO leverages #2, #3, and #4 pretty well, it has indeed failed to really capture the crucial loyalties of #1. For these audiences the NSO exudes a drab institutionalism, a good enough band for a good enough city, but not the kind of cultural asset which inspires a feeling of ownership. Changing this narrative will require taking some chances, thinking hard about what role the NSO wants to play in the cultural life of the city, and moving away from the bet-hedging of the current season.