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Strathmore: Off to a Sound Beginning

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 7, 2005; Page C01

So, just how good is the Music Center at Strathmore -- the gleamingly handsome, dazzlingly ambitious, 1,976-seat auditorium just off Rockville Pike that opened its doors Saturday night?

Very good indeed, on the preliminary evidence of the first concert, a gala program featuring the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Yuri Temirkanov. Indeed, from where I was sitting (on an aisle in the middle of the orchestra level) it sounded as though this may turn out to be the best place to hear symphonic music that the Washington area has ever known.

Yuri Temirkanov, music director of the Baltimore Symphony, helps inaugurate the new Music Center. (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_____
Music -- and Competition -- in the Air (The Washington Post, Feb 6, 2005)
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.

For those who would argue that this is faint praise -- neither the Kennedy Center Concert Hall nor its predecessor, DAR Constitution Hall, has been known for its brilliant acoustics -- let me add that the sound at the Music Center at Strathmore would seem to have presence, luster and clarity, with an unusually rich bass response. Indeed, the lower strings, whether played solo (cellist Yo-Yo Ma was the evening's name soloist) or in aggregate, seemed to emanate from the walls, the floor, the air itself, with a luscious, trembling immediacy that you could feel in your bones.

Until the last selection, Shostakovich's "Festive Overture," high notes were less impressive, sounding somewhat constrained. But Strathmore is equipped with adjustable acoustic panels and canopies, which were duly brought into play over the course of the evening. By the finale, the proper setting was achieved, and the bite and brilliance of the stratospheric brass fanfares in the Shostakovich were startling. Moreover, one could actually hear all that was going on in this complicated music.

The evening began with a fervent, unusually dramatic performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" -- credited, this time, to the man who actually wrote the music (John Stafford Smith) rather than the man who added patriotic words later on (Francis Scott Key). After that, there were speeches, and then more speeches (for better and for worse, politicians usually forget about concert halls after opening nights) and then -- in a last-minute substitution -- Temirkanov led the festive Polonaise from Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin" as the first piece to be played in the new hall.

A work titled "Arrache," by the deeply gifted Washington-born, Virginia-raised composer Michael Hersch, had been commissioned to open the formal program. "Arrache" -- which was played, and played beautifully, after the Tchaikovsky -- is a strong piece, alive with color and complexity and teeming with Hersch's usual melancholy intensity. Still, at the risk of seeming a hopeless philistine, I do understand the substitution of the Tchaikovsky for an opening gesture.

In his program notes, Hersch referred to writing "Arrache" (the French title means "torn or ripped from, torn away") last summer while contemplating the fates of hostages taken in Iraq. He acknowledged that the piece was "impacted by thoughts of that unspeakable terror." A point of view very well understood, but to every thing there is a season and the effect of such a gloomy evocation on this first-night audience -- flush with pardonable pride and out to celebrate -- would have been a bring-down of major proportions. Imagine expecting a blithe, funny wedding toast and receiving a chapter of "Being and Nothingness" instead, and you'll have the general idea.

Still, most pieces written for specific occasions tend to be forgotten by the time those occasions are over. And some of the few ceremonial works that have lasted (Aaron Copland's arching and ferocious "Connotations," which opened Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in 1962, is a perfect example) were not necessarily "appropriate" for their occasions either. "Arrache" is good, knotty, anguished music: It may not be a "party piece," but it will find its place.

Max Bruch, who wrote some of the loveliest music for violin in the repertoire, must have turned out his "Ave Maria" and "Kol Nidrei" for cello and orchestra on off nights: Ma did his best to enliven their rather drab earnestness with throbbing, songful performances, but I would rather have heard him in almost anything else. The "Bachiana Brasileira" No. 5 for soprano and eight cellos, by Heitor Villa-Lobos, was more engaging, due in part to the ripe, sultry crooning of Janice Chandler-Eteme. Credit also goes in part to the energies of the four eager teenage cellists who joined with Ma and members of the orchestra and who deserve to have their names (Jeffrey Chu, Rachel Gawell, Colin Stokes and Tim Wang) in the newspaper.

Temirkanov is a wonderfully expressive conductor, but he has the tendency to make everything he plays sound Russian; even the opening of Leonard Bernstein's "Glitter and Be Gay" came across like a long-lost folk melody from the wind-swept steppes. But Temirkanov had fun with the faster sections, embarking upon some playful theatrical give-and-take with soprano Harolyn Blackwell, who chirped and trilled and frolicked her way through some of the daffiest music imaginable. The Baltimore Symphony sounded terrific throughout the evening -- big and glistening and powerful, yet never insensitive to nuance.

There will be time to explore the strengths and weaknesses of the Music Center at Strathmore at length. How will it sound on a night when not every seat is filled? (The mere presence of lots of bodies can have an enormous effect on a hall's acoustics.) How will it respond to amplified music? To solo recitals? We shall find out. One thing is already certain, however: Musical life in the nation's capital region just got a lot more interesting.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company