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The voices of top-notch singers echo under a starry sky. Dozens of budding talents from around the globe convene on one orchestral stage. Performing arts venues have thrived for some time in suburban Virginia—in Vienna at the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts amphitheater (opened in 1971) and in Fairfax at the George Mason University Center for the Arts (1990).

And despite recent economic challenges, the number of stages has increased, with at least nine arts centers opening in the D.C. area since 2000. Northern Virginians now fill the seats at spaces modern and hip (like Arlington’s new Artisphere
) and ones informal and laid-back. Find below some of the year’s hottest tickets. 

CASTLETON
Again this summer, 200 or so young performing talents from as far away as Qatar and Turkey settle into a temporary home at Castleton Farms, nestled in the rolling hills of Rappahannock County. At mealtime the Great Room hosts a multicultural crew—instrumentalists and singers interspersed among costume designers, stagehands and electricians.

For Maestro Lorin Maazel, this melting pot of talent is the very scene he and his family envisioned when they launched the Castleton Festival at their estate three summers ago. On an especially lucky day, Maazel, music director of the New York Philharmonic for seven seasons, might nonchalantly swoop into the dining hall, violin in hand, treating awed diners to some impromptu Gershwin.

The Castleton Festival’s general manager, Nancy Gustafson, a world-acclaimed operatic singer, spoke recently about her dear friend Maazel, one of the world’s most esteemed conductors. “After 30-plus years in this business, I still feel I’m in the presence of greatness.” The two first met in Munich in 2005 when Maazel sought out the soprano. Next thing Gustafson knew, she says, “the world’s greatest conductor was writing a lead part” for her. Gustafson and Maazel became fast friends, and the singer soon befriended the maestro’s wife, Dietlinde, plus the Maazels’ three children, one of whom brought a rose to Gustafson’s dressing room before each performance.

The Castleton Festival, launched in 2009, emerged from a kitchen table brainstorming session between the Maazel family and Gustafson, “all because we thought this would be something fun,” recalls Gustafson, “and that we could help young musicians.” Lorin and Dietlinde Maazel had established The Châteauville Foundation in 1997, its mission to nurture young artists. They sited it at Castleton Farms, formerly a grand-scale chicken coop, now an idyllic, 600-acre estate 60 miles southwest of D.C. with 12 buildings plus a farm with llamas, alpacas, even a “zonkey” (the offspring of a zebra and a horse).

In 2006 they launched Castleton Residency, a program that brings global artists to the farm to live and work (unpaid) under the guidance of Maazel, at the end producing a series of chamber opera productions for the local community. The Châteauville Foundation also presents “world-class performances” from September to May at the property’s two venues—the intimate 140-seat Theatre House and the Festival Tent, an insulated, permanent structure that seats 400.

The 2011 Castleton Festival runs from June 25 to July 24, again merging an intense educational program and “first-class performances.” Maazel and his staff select the young talents (average age from 20 to 28) from hundreds of applicants. Gustafson explains that, even though there are many other music fests around the world, “the quality of our performances is just as good—the orchestral playing, the singing, the costumes, the sets—and yet ours is a training program.”

This year the festival stages six operas in four weeks, most of them conducted by the maestro. At 81 years of age, the dynamo shows no signs of slowing down. (On New Year’s Eve in Tokyo, for nearly 13 consecutive hours, he conducted all of Beethoven’s nine symphonies while standing and from memory.)

New Festival productions in 2011 are Giacomo Puccini’s “La Bohème,” Maurice Ravel’s “L’Enfant et les sortilèges” and Kurt Weill’s “The Seven Deadly Sins,” representing three completely different styles of opera. Returning productions include Puccini’s “Il Tabarro,” de Falla’s “Master Pedro’s Puppet Show” and Stravinsky’s “A Soldier’s Tale.”

Gustafson calls the Maazels “two of the most generous people on the planet.” Most of the funding comes from Maazel himself, and Gustafson estimates that for last year’s Festival, even after fundraising, he contributed a half-million dollars. She deems Castleton Farms “a magical place” that “comes from the love Maestro and his wife have—the love for music and the love for Virginia.” See www.castletonfestival.org.


HYLTON
This year the Castleton Festival branches out, taking the program off-campus to Prince William County’s new Hylton Performing Arts Center (PAC) for three July shows. Castleton collaborations at Hylton include “Porgy and Bess in Concert” July 7 and a Civil War Sesquicentennial Concert July 21, a patriotic show coinciding with the anniversary of the First Battle of Manassas and featuring mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves.

After an “incubation period” of about 13 years, the Hylton PAC, a soaring 85,000-square-foot center made of copper, glass and masonry, became a reality in May 2010. The venue, owned and operated by George Mason University, holds two performance spaces. The Gregory Family Theater offers a flexible, 4,400-square-foot space, while Merchant Hall, a 1,100-seat multipurpose theater encircled by 27 boxes, resembles 19th-century European opera houses. Executive Director Jean Kellogg calls the venue’s acoustics “spectacular,” noting Merchant Hall’s “reverb of 1.9 when the orchestral shell is up, the same as Carnegie Hall.”

From the first notes, the Manassas venue has sold out shows ranging from the Pops Orchestra to the Russian National Ballet’s “Sleeping Beauty.” According to Kellogg, the site aims to provide “all things to everyone” with shows from “bluegrass to Beethoven ... comedy to Celtic.” Both the city and the county are actively involved with the arts hub, and the venue’s programming directly reflects the community. Kellogg claims the venue provides the same caliber of performances one might find at the Kennedy Center but with the added benefit of proximity.

The Hylton PAC is now home to about 12 regional companies, and Resident Arts Partners here include the Manassas Ballet Theatre, NOVA Manassas Symphony Orchestra, Youth Orchestras of Prince William, Vpstart Crow and Prince William Little Theatre. The “Hylton Presents” performance series features The Flying Karamazov Brothers Sept. 17 and the Vienna Boys Choir December 15. See www.hyltoncenter.com.


BLUEGRASS
For some, a night of soaking up culture tends to be a little more laid-back. Think bluegrass, barbecue and beer. In August of 2003, after hearing a gig at a vintage general store in Floyd, Wally Johnson and his wife launched the Bluegrass Jam, an event now held the last Friday of each month. The popular, family-friendly get-together happens in the Old Furniture Factory in Round Hill and, in winter months, at Old Stone School in Hillsboro. The sessions bring together folks “of all ages and all political persuasions,” says Johnson. Older musicians mentor the younger ones since, according to Johnson, “You can’t learn by looking at the score ... you have to actually be a part of it to feel the rhythm and dialogue.”

During the jams, bluegrass aficionados break into smaller groups around the site (genres ranging from Celtic and blues to gospel), while spectators enjoy the tunes and refreshments. After the venue stops selling beer at midnight, an honor system kicks in; guests take water or sodas from the fridge and leave money in a nearby jar. These sessions have spurred other local groups to organize similar events, uniting numerous communities with the plucks of banjos and the strums of fiddles. Johnson fondly describes the harmonious scene. “Doctors play next to plumbers who play next to lawyers.” See www.theoldfurniturefactory.com.

 

Corinne Whiting
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