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Music -- and Competition -- in the Air

Baltimore Symphony to Give NSO a Run at Strathmore

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 6, 2005; Page A01

The 1,976-seat, $100 million Music Center at Strathmore opened its doors last night in North Bethesda with a glittering gala concert featuring cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Yuri Temirkanov.

Patrons made their way across a red carpet that stretched all the way from the parking garage to the spacious lobby. After the speeches were through, the BSO launched into the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin" and then the world premiere of "Arrache" by the young composer Michael Hersch. After that, soprano Harolyn Blackwell launched into "Glitter and Be Gay" from Leonard Bernstein's "Candide" -- a joyful display piece that seemed to epitomize the jubilance of the evening.

"We've already sold out most of our Saturdat night concerts for the rest of the year," says that BSO's James Glicker. (Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)

_____Photo Gallery_____
An Evening at the Strathmore: The new Music Center is one in a growing list of suburban performing arts centers in the metro area and across the country.
Arts in the Suburbs
Strathmore at a Glance
_____How to Get There_____
Driving Directions
_____More on Strathmore_____
Montgomery Celebrates Strathmore (The Washington Post, Feb 6, 2005)
One Handsome Hall (The Washington Post, Feb 4, 2005)
At Strathmore, Suburbs Take Another Bow (The Washington Post, Feb 3, 2005)
Sale of Land Hits Wrong Chord for Strathmore (The Washington Post, Feb 3, 2005)
The Arts, From Classroom to Concert Hall (The Washington Post, Feb 3, 2005)
Close to Strathmore, Some Show-Stopping Meals (The Washington Post, Feb 3, 2005)
Strathmore's Hidden Assets (The Washington Post, Jan 30, 2005)
_____Wammies at Strathmore_____
The Music Center at Strathmore hosts the Washington Music Awards on Monday, Feb. 7, starting at 8 p.m.
Transcript: WAMA president Mike Schreibman and Shelley Brown, vice president of programming at the Music Center at Strathmore, discussed the Wammies.

It may turn out to have been the most significant event for classical music in the capital area since the opening of the Kennedy Center in 1971. Though several large auditoriums have opened in the Washington suburbs in recent years -- most notably the Center for the Arts at George Mason University in 1990 and the Clarice Smith Center at the University of Maryland in 2001 -- the Music Center at Strathmore will offer a direct challenge to the Kennedy Center's primacy in the world of symphonic music, with plans to present the Baltimore Symphony in 26 programs a season.

Indeed, with the Baltimore Symphony's incursion into the back yard of the National Symphony Orchestra, the capital area becomes the first metropolis in the country in almost 80 years to present listeners with a choice of programs by two full-size, full-time, regularly scheduled orchestras every week of the season. Not since the New York Philharmonic merged with the New York Symphony Society in 1928 has an urban area seen such a battle of the bands.

It's a close-quarters fight. The Music Center at Strathmore is less than five miles from the District line. Adjacent to the Red Line's Grosvenor-Strathmore station, it is more convenient to Metro than is the Kennedy Center. It also offers free parking, compared with the $15 it costs to occupy the Kennedy Center garage for a few hours.

According to the Washington Performing Arts Society, up to one-quarter of the Kennedy Center's patrons come from Montgomery County, one of the richest jurisdictions in the United States. Strathmore Hall is barely more than a croissant's throw from affluent supporters in Bethesda, Chevy Chase and Potomac.

When the BSO first expressed interest in Strathmore in 1996, it was thought the site would turn into a summer home for the orchestra, as Tanglewood in Lenox, Mass., has been for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. But the Baltimore Symphony ultimately opted to become the only major American orchestra with year-round homes in two adjacent metropolises. In part, this was because of the orchestra's difficulties in attracting patrons to Joseph Meyerhoff Hall in downtown Baltimore, its home since 1982. According to James Glicker, the orchestra's newly appointed president, an average Baltimore Symphony concert at the 2,443-seat Meyerhoff will be about 55 percent to 60 percent filled. Some concerts sell out, but there are other nights when only a few hundred people will be in attendance.

The picture at Strathmore is markedly brighter. "We've already sold out most of our Saturday night concerts for the rest of the year," Glicker said. "And we're finding that we're reaching a brand-new group of people. Almost all our audience is coming from Montgomery County -- 85 percent or more, based on the Zip codes of the subscribers who give us their mailing addresses. And anecdotal evidence, at least, suggests that very few of our subscribers are switching over from the NSO. The people we've been speaking to either stopped going to the NSO years ago or never went at all."

According to a spokeswoman from the NSO, a typical house at the 2,442-seat Kennedy Center Concert Hall will fill approximately 80 percent of capacity, with patrons almost equally divided among those coming from the District, Virginia and Maryland. Nonetheless, the Baltimore Symphony move will give the 74-year-old National Symphony Orchestra -- in residence at the Kennedy Center since 1971 and a full artistic affiliate there since 1986 -- steady, weekly competition for the first time in its history.

Rita Shapiro, the NSO's executive director, says she foresees "no problems" between the two orchestras. "We welcome the Baltimore Symphony into the Washington area," she said. "They are great colleagues; we have enormous respect for them and I have no doubt that both groups will meet their expectations."

For his part, Michael M. Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center, sounds unworried. "In the last quarter of a century, the cultural life in the nation's capital has grown exponentially and the audiences have increased in like measure," he said in a statement. "This augurs well for the future of Strathmore and the entire region's performing arts scene."

Still, with a top ticket price of $77 for the NSO at the Kennedy Center and $78 for the Baltimore Symphony at Strathmore, the purchase of a pair of seats for an orchestral concert is not something that many listeners undertake lightly. It seems likely -- indeed, inevitable -- that in a difficult and uncertain time for arts organizations, there will be competition between the two ensembles, especially if Strathmore starts draining nearby subscribers from the Kennedy Center.

"Sure, there will be people who will opt to choose Baltimore over the NSO if Baltimore is playing right next door," Jack McAuliffe, vice president and chief operating officer of the American Symphony Orchestra League, said last week. "That's only natural. But a new hall can bring in a new audience, too -- and that is what everybody is hoping for." Belying these brave words, of course, is the Baltimore Symphony trustees' decision to budget $1 million for advertising to avoid losing attendance at its Baltimore location. Of special concern are Howard County patrons, who could easily travel to either venue.

Both orchestras have a reasonable claim for inclusion on a list of the top 10 or 15 such ensembles in the United States -- not to be spoken of in the same breath as Cleveland, Philadelphia or St. Louis, perhaps, but quite on a level with groups such as Minnesota, Houston or Atlanta.

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