Piotr Gajewski, left, the music director and conductor for the National Philharmonic, leads the orchestra in rehearsal for its coming concert. The first concert of the 2020-21 season will be on Sunday, featuring works by Beethoven. Credit: Photo by Mig Dooley

The National Philharmonic, which performs at Strathmore, will bring concerts to computer screens with a virtual 2020-21 season.

The season kicks off on Sunday with a tribute to Beethoven ahead of the 250th anniversary of the famous composer’s birth.

For the first time, concerts will be offered for free — streamed online and aired on WETA on TV.

Most of the performances will take place at Strathmore, while the chamber concerts will be held at AMP by Strathmore. Each program, scheduled every two weeks, will run for 60 minutes, including pieces, interviews with soloists, and live demonstrations.

“Music is something that is very soothing and that also stimulates us,” music director and conductor Piotr Gajewski said in an interview. “It’s something that we can grab onto and enjoy the creativity.”

To keep safe, most musicians wear masks and all stay at least six feet apart. Those who play wind instruments and therefore cannot wear masks must keep a distance of more than nine feet between them.


Additionally, the orchestra does not perform to a live audience. Adjusting to the social distancing requirements initially proved challenging, Gajewski said, particularly without the audience’s energy.

“We might finish something that’s fast and loud and glorious and typically there would immediately be the sound of applause rewarding the efforts,” he said. “Instead, it’s just silence.”

But with practice, the orchestra has adjusted to the change. Now, conducting in a mask feels almost natural, albeit slightly less comfortable.


The season’s 15 concerts cost more than $1 million, Gajewski said. Traditionally, each concert ticket costs $50 to $60.

Without ticket revenue, the Philharmonic has relied largely on donations. More than three-quarters of the funds come from private individuals, while the remainder come from the Maryland State Arts Council, the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County, and the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

The organization’s last concert was in February, before social distancing measures were enacted.


The Philharmonic used the roughly eight months off to critically examine the lack of diversity in the pieces it plays.

“Most classical music organizations have been very much rooted in the past and the past has been very much rooted in mostly white guys writing music,” Gajewski said.

While performing in a place as diverse as Montgomery County, he added, the Philharmonic was not representative of its community by almost solely featuring pieces by white composers.


The upcoming concerts will include more pieces written by women and composers of color. This music is particularly interesting, he said, as the strife these groups have undergone plays out in more emotional music.

On Nov. 22, the Philharmonic will have a concert that features exclusively American composers, including works by two women — Jessica Montgomery and Pulitzer Prize-winner Melinda Wagner — and William Grant Still, considered the “dean of Afro-American composers.”

Additionally, the Philharmonic will try to feature more local talent. Gajewski provided as an example Carlos Simon, an African American composer who teaches at Georgetown.


“I can’t say we’re proud because we really dropped the ball some time ago,” he said. “This is something that we should have come to long ago. Now, what’s going on in America has really put a lens on the issues.”

The organization will continue to feature music by more diverse artists in future concerts.

Even after the pandemic ends, administrators have discussed how to remove the financial barriers to the performances. The Philharmonic will likely have a hybrid of in-person concerts that are also available to stream for free, Gajewski said.


He is excited to cater to a larger audience— people who may not have had the opportunity to discover if they are classical music fans.

“Now is the moment to try it out,” Gajewski said about watching the streamed concerts.

The 2020-21 series will be:

  • Oct. 25: “Beethoven @ 250 Birthday Bash,” featuring some of Beethoven’s compositions, including his first attempt to compose a symphony
  • Nov. 8: “Music That Suspends Time,” featuring music so powerful it transcends time and space
  • Nov. 22: “All American Composers,” featuring works by a variety of leading American composers
  • Dec. 6: “Music That Connects Us All,” featuring musician Brian Ganz performing pieces designed to bridge divides between performer and audience
  • Dec. 20: “The Best of Handel’s ‘Messiah,’” featuring music from George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah,” as well as holiday favorites
  • Jan. 3, 2021: “Music That Brings Wonder,” featuring music inspired by Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass”
  • Jan. 17, 2021: “In Memoriam — Hailstork & Strauss,” featuring music by Adolphus Hailstork, who blends African American and European musical traditions, and Richard Strauss, who composed music that mirrored the turmoil of World War II
  • Jan. 31, 2021: “Music That Travels Through Space,” featuring music paired with images and videos courtesy of NASA
  • Feb. 14, 2021: “Amore & Mozart,” featuring the husband-and-wife duo of Kerry Wilkerson and Danielle Talamantes performing Henry Dehlinger’s “Amore,” which was composed for a friend’s recent nuptials
  • Feb. 28, 2021: “Music That Celebrates Home,” featuring music highlighting the meaning of home, particularly the nearby D.C. gardens
  • March 14, 2021: “Bach’s Influence from Mozart to Hamer,” featuring multiple compositions that expanded off the same short phrase by Bach
  • March 28, 2021: “Music That Feeds the Soul,” featuring compositions designed to soothe and calm the audience
  • April 11, 2021: “Portrait of a Queen,” featuring Carlos Simon’s “Portrait of the Queen,” which traces the evolution of Black people in America by following one woman, accompanied by dramatic spoken word
  • April 25, 2021: “Music that Inspires,” featuring music inspired by works of visual art including the paintings of Grant Wood
  • May 9, 2021: “Brian Ganz Plays Chopin,” featuring pianist Brian Ganz performing two works by composer Frédéric Chopin