- The Washington Times - Friday, February 4, 2005

After 10 years of planning, the new $100 million Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda is poised for its gala opening. Tonight, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra — BSO at Strathmore, as it bills itself — conductor Yuri Temirkanov and guest artist Yo-Yo Ma will stride onstage and begin to make history in the grand new hall.

This confluence of hall and orchestra is the result of a joining of two sometimes unlikely bedfellows, art and politics. It involves both Montgomery County’s search to offer greater cultural opportunities to its residents and the state’s wish to support Baltimore Symphony’s expansion into a new market. One wouldn’t have happened without the other.

As Eliot Pfanstiehl, Strathmore’s chief executive officer, puts it: “What’s a great concert hall without a great orchestra? It was a marriage made in heaven — and in Annapolis.”

In this public-private partnership, the state and Montgomery County contributed equally to the cost of the building, and Strathmore and its nonprofit partners are charged with bringing life to the property.

This life burst into sound two days ago as Mr. Ma and Mr. Temirkanov made music together at their first rehearsal in the stunning new hall. Both seemed jubilant.

Four student cellists chosen from Montgomery County schools, plus three BSO cellists, joined them and soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme to rehearse “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5,” by Heitor Villa-Lobos.

Mr. Temirkanov spoke about the “phenomenal presence” of the hall and Strathmore’s unique mix of educational and performance activities.

“What a wonderful signal it sends to the community when you have a gorgeous new hall that’s also an educational place,” Mr. Ma said. “What a great idea on the first night of presentation, that you have kids playing that are from the state.”

BSO at Strathmore is first among equals. It has scheduled 25 concerts this inaugural season with guest artists including Hilary Hahn, Gidon Kremer and Bobby McFerrin, plus a series of pops concerts. As presenter, it is bringing the Canadian Brass and the Boys Choir of Harlem.

Other partner arts groups and organizations include the National Philharmonic; the Washington Performing Arts Society; Strathmore’s own performing series; and Strathmore’s educational wing: the Levine School of Music, the Maryland Classical Youth Orchestra and CityDance.

“Nowhere else in the country do you have education and performance in such abundance under one roof,” Mr. Pfanstiehl claims.

Strathmore’s new hall prompts important questions: Will the quality of programming match the soaring aspirations of the hall itself? Will the easy accessibility of the music center — with a Metro stop virtually at its door and free parking included in the ticket price for those who drive — ensure the volume of concertgoers needed to fill the almost-2,000-seat house? Will the hall sound as beautiful as it looks?

A partial answer to the last came last month when the National Philharmonic, under the direction of Piotr Gajewski, played six concerts for Montgomery County’s second-graders — all 10,000 of them. The musicians were pleased at how well they could hear one another. That’s an important factor in how well they play, but the larger question of how well the audience hears them is still to be put to the test.

The artistic profile of the hall will be shaped by the BSO and its Strathmore colleagues. All are seeking new markets, new audiences and new fund-raising opportunities to make artistic excellence possible. In today’s uncertain economy, this calls for optimism, but all the groups involved declare themselves pleasantly surprised by the response they’ve already received.

Mr. Gajewski says his National Philharmonic has more than doubled its subscriptions this year — from 800 to more than 1,800. “And this is on spec,” he says. “Not a single note had been played when they subscribed.”

For the BSO, the stakes are high. “Our success at Strathmore is absolutely critical to our survival,” says Michael Mael, BSO’s vice president at Strathmore. “We start with a blank slate, and we’re going to try new things, take chances, find ways to be more accessible to our new audience.”

Everyone is watching to see how the profile of this hall — so warm yet also so sophisticated and elegant — meshes with its suburban setting and audience. According to Shelley Brown, in charge of Strathmore’s own programming, the audience in years past has come mostly from the north — Rockville, Gaithersburg and Germantown. With this “world-class” hall, a large crowd of city dwellers from the south is expected.

Still, her approach to programming is more cautious than that of other colleagues. In the past, she says, Strathmore’s programs were geared toward family audiences, and she continues to stress that. Further, the Strathmore ads have raised some fears that the center is about “entertainment-lite.”

Still, with many groups presenting events, the program choices are wide-ranging.

The Washington Performing Arts Society has scheduled 10 concerts this season, including recitals by Itzhak Perlman, Evgeny Kissin and the Emerson String Quartet, as well as performances by the Mingus Big Band and the Footworks Percussive Dance Ensemble.

“We were concerned that artists like Perlman and Kissin might not want to play in a brand-new, untested hall,” says Neale Perl, director of WPAS, “but they’re very enthusiastic. They can’t wait to play here.”

He credits Mr. Pfanstiehl and County Executive Douglas M. Duncan for their boldness of vision in building a 2,000-seat hall. “That was critical to having such major artists here; obviously, you don’t put Yo-Yo Ma in a 500-seat theater,” Mr. Perl says. “But what’s going to make the hall great over time is the programming, because people are not going to pay money to go to the concession stands or see the bathroom.”

The planners want to bring dance to Strathmore’s stage, but because this is a concert hall without a proscenium, they are experimenting. The resident CityDance Ensemble appears first, Feb. 17, with musicians on risers framing the action and Rasta Thomas appearing as resident guest. “Hopefully, it will blaze a trail for dance to be a major part of this space,” says artistic director Paul Gordon Emerson.

Tap-dance wonder Savion Glover comes in April, and much more dance is planned next season.

Approaching the building with its large glass windows, one sees dancers and musicians from CityDance and the Levine School at work. The studios are splendid, but there’s space — and a need — for a small black-box theater in the education wing to complement the large hall and bring audiences another, more informal and intimate, experience.

A 250-seat theater could be fit neatly into the largest studio and offer a creative counterbalance to the grand concert hall — a small, fitting gesture to emphasize Strathmore’s all-embracing view of art.

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