Arts Desk

Neale Perl’s Routine Legacy With the Washington Performing Arts Society

On Wednesday, Neale Perl announced that he would step down as president of the Washington Performing Arts Society at the end of the 2012-2013 season. The move was unexpected, The Washington Post reports, noting that Perl “does not yet have another position lined up; he’s open to offers.”

Having led WPAS for the past decade, Perl apparently just got tired of the routine. Perhaps concert-goers can relate. Under Perl, WPAS has coasted on its rep as D.C.’s premier presenter of the arts—if by “arts” you mean “classical music” and by “classical music” you mean “Yo-Yo Ma.” WPAS has long filled a niche of bringing well-established, marquee-name soloists and orchestras to D.C. for rather hefty fees. If you don’t even like classical music and you’ve heard of the guy, chances are it’s a WPAS show, and you can’t afford the ticket. But you can always save up, because Ma, Joshua Bell, and the Philadelphia Orchestra will all be back next year. And the year after that. And the year after that.

Yet at least in theory, WPAS has a mandate that encompasses all performing arts, including pop, jazz, gospel, dance, and world music. You don’t get that impression from its programming, though. The brochure for the upcoming season is 46 pages long; the first 37 are devoted to classical, after which we get “jazz, pop and more.” Jazz comes the closest to providing some balance. Wynton Marsalis is WPAS’s perennial seat-filler on that end. But with some exceptions like Esperanza Spalding, WPAS hasn’t exactly gone out on a limb with younger and up-and-coming artists.

Contrast this to WPAS’s mission a decade ago, upon the retirement of Perl’s predecessor Douglas Wheeler, according to the Post:

[WPAS] embraced new art forms and emerging artists, showcasing work that went beyond the European classics and American jazz. The group also worked to make sure the performers it presented and the audiences it attracted reflected the area’s racial diversity.…And as the population diversified, WPAS presented a wider range of music—from zydeco to swing to world music.

The last couple seasons before Perl featured Brazilian singer Daniela Mercury, disability artist Bill “Crutchmaster” Shannon, the Ballet Folklorico of Mexico, Sweet Honey in the Rock, a French Algerian hip-hop dance troupe, and Danny Glover reading poems by Langston Hughes. And, of course, Yo-Yo Ma.

Truth be told, WPAS programs were always divided between classical and everything else; the question was just a matter of how much of each and how much to mix it up. Whether its focus in the last decade on the same classical superstars is Perl’s doing is unclear. But at least one WPAS director of programming hired under Perl, Jeff Parks, left abruptly after a short tenure. When asked about Perl’s transition, Parks said, “no comment.”

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  • Jeff Parks

    Sometimes "no comment" means just that.

    As the only individual "quoted" in this article, I feel it my responsibility to make clear -- I told the writer "no comment" because I had literally had no comment, no information and no insight to provide on Mr. Perl's stepping down after 10 years at the head of WPAS. I'm shocked to see it attached to this article as if I underscore or agree with the spirit of this piece.

    If my "no comment" is interpreted in any way as impugning Mr. Perl's or WPAS' work, know that it is not the case. Classical has always been a main attraction in the WPAS roster - and in fact it was even greater in the 80's and 90's (Can you imagine 3 separate orchestra series?) - but it is hardly the sole focus. There are innumerable topics here the writer could have tackled instead of what we have here. Even the top thinkers, scholars and presenters in the business struggle with the gift and the burden of the Western Classical tradition; the cultural gap that seems impossible to bridge at times; an audience that is aging and not being replaced; skyrocketing costs to produce and market such ventures whether classical or popular, the list goes on. WPAS just swims in the same ocean as hundreds of other non-profit presenters and faces the same challenges.

    I was brought on board at WPAS specifically to help the organization plan and execute new artistic directions and engage diverse audiences, and it should be noted that when the economic collapse of 2008 came, I wasn't given my walking papers. Instead I stayed and with the support of Mr. Perl and the board, we hammered out a successful plan to advance our artistic planning while reducing the downside and keeping the doors open. I always speak with great satisfaction about the work we accomplished in the two years I worked with them.

    Lest this work disappear down the "memory hole", a few examples include the inception of the VelocityDC Dance Festival (a project which continues to this day), the twin series of programming for jazz, world music and young classical soloists at the Sixth and I (another project which continues to this day), the debut of dozens of new jazz, pop and world music artists including the DC debut of Indian pop star Kailash Kher (no Algerians, sadly..).. the list goes on, and on, and on.

    Jeff Parks