- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 6, 2005

What may be one of the most widely heralded openings of a performing arts facilities in recent memory took place Saturday at North Bethesda’s Music Center at Strathmore, a brilliantly lighted, spanking new complex combining a 1,976-seat auditorium linked to an arts education wing.

Guests paying between $100 and $1,000 to attend a combination of gala events — reception, seated dinner, and concert followed by more dessert and dancing — arrived via Metro’s Grosvenor-Strathmore parking garage on a red-carpeted skybridge boasting a multihued light sculpture ceiling by local artist Athena Tacha that is said to be a visual portrayal of musical notation.

VIPs of the night included Boston architect William Rawn (formerly a lawyer with the D.C. firm of Arendt, Fox), the facility’s Chief Executive Officer Eliot Pfanstiehl (technically head of the Strathmore Hall Foundation) and a parade of past and present Maryland pols that included Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, Sens. Paul Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski, Reps. Christopher Van Hollen and Albert Wynn, Comptroller and former Gov. William Donald Schaefer, former Gov. Parris Glendening and former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma and sopranos Harolyn Blackwell and Janice Chandler-Eteme performed during the hour-and-a-half concert with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) conducted by Yuri Temirkanov. [See concert review on B5.]

The $100 million, 190,000-square-foot venue was made possible by a combination of county and state funds, plus a hefty $10 million contributed privately by, among others, Lockheed Martin, Discovery Communications, Comcast and the J. Willard and Alice Marriott Foundation.

Extra allocations were required at the very end, said Mr. Duncan, who prevailed in his efforts to complete the massive project after the Montgomery County Council objected to the inevitable cost overruns.

“They suggested cutting back on acoustics, but they came around,” Mr. Duncan said with a weary smile during the pre-dinner cocktails crush.

No expense was spared on the computerized mechanics, which means that “sound can be tailored by the push of a button,” the beaming Mr. Pfanstiehl noted, obviously pleased with all the critical bravos that have greeted the state-of-the-art building.

“Three months ago at the hard hat concert everyone hailed the auditorium’s interior with its red birch wood and brass,” Mr. Rawn said. “It’s warm but not pretentious.”

Such sentiments typlified the atmosphere of what turned out to be a remarkably bipartisan event.

“Who said Republicans and Democrats can’t get along?” Mr. Ehrlich asked the crowd during opening remarks onstage.

“The first lady gave me a drum for Christmas,” Mr. Ehrlich noted with a nod to Mr. Duncan, his probable re-election opponent, “so I may be performing here next year.”

“Let’s all be grateful for what we have accomplished together,” J.W. “Bill” Marriott Jr. said before the BSO’s opening notes of the “The Star-Spangled Banner” and a specially commissioned premiere piece from local composer Michael Hersch. The BSO, it should be noted, will be the resident orchestra, sharing honors with such other performing arts organizations as the Levine School of Music, the CityDance Ensemble and the National Philharmonic.

Any suggestions that the “new crown jewel” of the suburban arts scene would adversely affect attendance at Washington’s Kennedy Center, or vice-versa, were quickly quashed by guests.

Gala co-chairwoman Alexine Jackson couldn’t resist a New York analogy. “Strathmore will be to Carnegie Hall what the Kennedy Center is to Lincoln Center.”

Maryland’s junior senator was even more emphatic.

“If we can have two baseball stadiums,” Miss Mikulski declared, “we can have two symphony halls.

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