The programming, created in conjunction with the NSO and Wolf Trap, doesn’t show a lot of faith in classical music’s inherent appeal to a wider audience.
“The way I look at it, [it’s] for people like my parents,” says De Cou, “people who might go to one concert a year or two.”
He adds: “An honest American take on performing is making it open to everybody. . . . I will do anything, put on a chicken suit, if it gets an audience.”
The point is to expose people to the particular joys of live performance, rather than proselytize for future orchestra subscribers. De Cou notes that the informality of the outdoor setting allows the orchestra freedom to try new things, including tweeting program notes for Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony a couple of years ago.
Wolf Trap has not abandoned its commitment to the high arts; it has just shifted it. According to Jones, there are four main “pillars” of Wolf Trap, one of which is the Filene Center, the 7,000-seat amphitheater where the summer performances take place. The other three are the Barns, the intimate 300-seat theater across Route 267 that offers a range of concerts during the regular season; the Wolf Trap Opera, a distinctive little company focused on giving experience to young artists at the beginning of their professional careers (its contribution to the 40th anniversary is a gala concert of successful alumni, including Lawrence Brownlee, Stephanie Blythe and Denyce Graves, on Aug. 24); and an education arm that includes a significant national initiative for early-childhood education, with 15 outposts across the country.
“A good many people got to know Wolf Trap as a performing arts venue,” McKee says, “but there is this massive community across the country who are early-childhood educators who have known about the institute for 30 years . . . and they don’t know that we do performances.”
In Jones’s view, the more popular — and often commercial — acts at the Filene Center every summer have a particular role in Wolf Trap’s ecology.
“The Huey Lewises of the world are helping us create opera; they’re helping us create our education program,” he says. “Without those sellouts of those kinds of shows, we wouldn’t be able to sustain the rest of the mission of the foundation.”
Jones touts the fact that Wolf Trap has commissioned 70 works of art in the 15-plus years of his tenure. Most of these works have been commissions for small dance companies, pieces for various education programs or short chamber works performed at the Barns, but a couple have been noteworthy. The 2004 opera “Volpone” by John Musto and Mark Campbell was successful enough to be revived, recorded, nominated for a Grammy and followed up with the slightly less-successful opera “The Inspector,” which opened in April.
A fan of the so-called high arts can easily look at Wolf Trap’s early years — the Cleveland Orchestra! Martha Graham’s company! — and feel the center has turned from its original mission to present art. But variety and mass-market spectacle have always been a key part of Wolf Trap’s DNA. (One of Shouse’s coups was securing the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, complete with ranks of bagpipes, in what was evidently an eye- and ear-popping salute to the American bicentennial. Shakespeare it wasn’t.) Wolf Trap has never aspired to act as a trailblazer: It simply wants to entertain audiences with things that they will like.
“I don’t know that Wolf Trap has an identity,” says Murry Sidlin, the conductor and professor at the Catholic University’s school of music, who in the 1970s, as a resident conductor of the NSO, conducted many times at Wolf Trap, “other than providing entertainment, whatever that means to whoever uses the word.”
And entertainment, today, means something different, as festival directors everywhere are finding out. “There’s nothing wrong with being all things to all people,” Kauffman says of Ravinia. The statement could apply to Wolf Trap as well, where the so-called high arts are more likely to be found at the Barns, playing to an audience of 300, rather than in the Filene Center.
Wolf Trap, after all, knows its audience.
“For the capital of the free world,” McKee says, “we find our audiences not that adventurous. They want people to tell them that something is safe.”