Sunday, February 6, 2005

Montgomery County and the state of Maryland proudly rolled out the red carpet on Saturday evening to welcome a celebratory throng of VIPs, political bigwigs, well-heeled donors —and even a few music lovers and students — to the grand opening of the glittering new Music Center at Strathmore. The gala highlighted the North Bethesda venue’s primary new tenant, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. [See gala coverage on B8.]

The concert hall is an innovative melding of Danish modern and Japanese-influenced geometric simplicity. With the exception of the industrial-look ceiling and its arresting array of clear acoustical baffles suspended overhead, the performance space, including the floor, is covered in bright-toned wood sheathing. Think Scan, Ikea, or Bo concept.

The sweeping boxes and balconies that appear to float in the air and the stage-rear woodwork and lighting are strongly influenced by Japanese minimalism with the complimentary lighting appearing as an array of softly-illumined shoji screens.

Obviously, the meticulously planned decor has a functional purpose as well. Its hard surfaces and tuned geometry make this a very live performance space. Happily, the sound is generally of audiophile quality. You can literally hear a pin drop. But the current configuration occasionally incurs a penalty for unnecessary harshness.

After the requisite dedicatory speeches by Strathmore officials, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr., and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, and the singing of the national anthem, BSO maestro Yuri Temirkanov and his ensemble leaped headlong into a spirited, unscheduled performance of the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s opera “Eugene Onegin.” Next on tap was the BSO-commissioned world premiere of Michael Hersch’s eminently forgettable “Arrache.” Inspired by the gruesome deaths of hostages in Iraq, “Arrache” — with its predictable mishmash of audience-hostile, tone-clustered bombast — was grandly misconceived for a celebratory gala. Mr. Hersch attempted redemption with a credible fugue near the end, but then simply gave it up. He apparently didn’t appear for the premiere either, leaving a baffled maestro Temirkanov to exit the stage without his expected guest.

More Tchaikovsky followed, including the “Waltz of the Flowers” and “Pas de Deux” from the “Nutcracker.” The inclusion of both was a bit curious, considering the usual Christmas barrage of “Nutcracker” performances has only recently concluded. But the BSO performed both works with a fine attention to detail.

Yet in all the Tchaikovsky numbers, as well as Dmitri Shostakovich’s celebratory “Festive Overture,” Op. 96, that concluded the program, the brass choirs seemed overly bright and grating on sensitive ears. It’s by no means the fault of the ensemble, but could be a downside to the auditorium’s hard interior surfaces. Additional acoustical adjustments will be needed, much in the way the updated Kennedy Center Concert Hall can be retuned to suit various musical genres.

An opening isn’t a gala without stars, and Strathmore had them on Saturday. Soprano Harolyn Blackwell brought the house down with her high-energy reading of “Glitter and Be Gay” from Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide.” Renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma was also on the program performing two works by Max Bruch — “Kol Negri: Adagio on Hebrew Melodies,” Op. 47, and his “Ave Maria,” Op. 61. The latter is a rarely heard, ravishingly romantic composition and Mr. Ma — accompanied by an empathic BSO — gave it an elegant, emotional reading.

Mr. Ma returned, along with soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme and seven other cellists (including BSO members and talented local music students), to perform Heitor Villa-Lobos’ two-song “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5.” The idea behind this presentation was to highlight Strathmore’s significant music education mission; a passion of Mr. Ma as well. But the Villa-Lobos piece was well worth hearing on its own with its intriguing blend of high modernism and Brazilian harmonies and rhythms. Here, the auditorium exhibited its more sensitive characteristics, as each of the eight cellists could be heard as a distinct musician in addition to blending with the ensemble.

Bravo to Maryland and Montgomery County for their persistence in constructing a wonderful new concert venue. There can be no disputing that the metropolitan area has added yet another impressive performance space that will serve as a major magnet for the performing arts for years to come.

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