Even before the first professional performance at the new Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, the hundreds of young musicians and dancers who'll train there call it home.
The five-story education center is alive with the sounds of violins and flutes; the tap, tap, tap of budding ballerinas; and the thumping of hip-hop dancers. The classes begin early in the morning and last all day.
"I've been excited to watch the building rise, but that's not half as fun as watching it fill with kids," said Eliot Pfanstiehl, president and chief executive of Strathmore. "When kids arrive, that's life. It's better than we dreamt."
A mix of arts education and world-class performances is the core of Strathmore's mission to create a special artistic experience at the $100 million Music Center, which will hold its opening celebration Saturday. The high-tech 1,976-seat concert hall will feature national and international performers, including cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Itzhak Perlman, tap dancer Savion Glover, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval and Chinese acrobats.
Meanwhile, the education center will offer as many as 75 classes a week. There are two rehearsal halls for orchestra and chorus, four classrooms, a 2,500-square-foot dance studio and nine practice rooms. The floors are color-coded -- orange, green, blue and white -- so the youngest students can find their way around easily.
Most visitors to Strathmore, who will cross an elevated walkway from a parking garage and Metro's Grosvenor-Strathmore Station on the Red Line to reach the entrance, will first see the education center's soaring glass windows and are likely to catch glimpses of the young artists as they practice.
"Almost all of the performing arts centers will say that they do education, and they do have shows for kids and maybe some teacher training workshops or an education festival," Pfanstiehl said. "But here, education is 'come on in and learn how to play the instrument.' I don't care if you're 2 or 90 or some age in between. Every single day, the music schools are teaching you how to sing or play an instrument or do anything in music, CityDance is teaching you how to move, dance, make the music come alive in your body. It's a community school where everybody can come, not just the best of the best."
The Music Center, built next to the 103-year-old Strathmore Mansion on county-owned land just off Rockville Pike, a few miles from the Capital Beltway, involves a partnership of arts organizations that will offer classes and stage performances. Funding for its construction came from the state and county as well as from private donations.
The center initially was conceived as a second home for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, regarded as one of the country's best orchestras, which will give 40 performances a year. Pfanstiehl then invited other established groups: the National Philharmonic, the Washington Performing Arts Society, the Levine School of Music, CityDance Ensemble and the Maryland Classic Youth Orchestras. All of the groups are leasing office and classroom space, except for the Washington Performing Arts Society, which has office space elsewhere. The nonprofit Strathmore organization also uses space to coordinate its events.
"We cast it just like a play," Pfanstiehl said. "I guess we could put a sign on the door: Art spoken here.''
In brainstorming about ways to create an arts center that would stand out, organizers decided to teach an array of music and dance styles to meet the tastes of a diverse region. Offerings include classes and performances in hip-hop, jazz, Scottish fiddle and rock-and-roll guitar. Also, the center will have extended hours -- it will be open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day.
"The link between studying and performance is very strong here," said Kelly Elizabeth Mayfield, director of education for the District-based CityDance Ensemble. "Our dancers can peek through the window and see Yo-Yo Ma or Savion Glover walking down the hallway and they can think, 'If I work really hard, someday I'll be on that stage.' The dream is visible; it's not hard to imagine. It's right here."
The BSO, which has long had a presence in schools around the state, will continue its educational concerts, focusing on music appreciation, said Michael L. Mael, vice president of BSO Strathmore.
"We want to get children familiar with the orchestra, the basics of the music and the structure," he said. "We also typically use a narrator that tells a story related to the music and makes it interesting. One program is put together for very young children, another version is for older children, and it ties in elements of classical music to a story." About 12,000 to 15,000 children are expected to attend BSO concerts each year.