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At Strathmore, Suburbs Take Another Bow

Montgomery Among Counties That Have Major Venues for the Performing Arts

By Miranda S. Spivack and Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 3, 2005; Page A01

Traffic hums incessantly along Rockville Pike, past the fast-food restaurants, the strip malls and the car dealers, a major artery sustaining suburban growth and sprawl in Montgomery County.

Turn onto Tuckerman Lane, and just a block off the Pike a new reality emerges: the sleek lines of a glass and limestone concert hall, almost hidden in the trees.

The hall was designed primarily as a venue for symphonic and classical music but can be adapted for amplified music. (James M Thresher -- 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_____
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.
Live Online: WAMA president Mike Schreibman and Shelley Brown, vice president of programming at the Music Center at Strathmore, will be online Friday, Feb. 4, at Noon ET.

On Saturday, the Baltimore Symphony and cellist Yo-Yo Ma will play in the inaugural concert at the Music Center at Strathmore, a $100 million venue built largely with public funds. The 2,000-seat auditorium in North Bethesda is also one in a growing list of sophisticated suburban performing arts centers in the Washington region and across the country.

"The arts are not for downtown alone anymore," said Glen S. Howard, general counsel for the Fannie Mae Foundation, a longtime patron of the arts and president of the United Arts Organization, a District-based umbrella group.

The opening aligns the Washington suburbs with large and growing areas outside major cities such as Atlanta, Los Angeles and Minneapolis and St. Paul, where major performance venues have been built or are under construction. Closer to Washington, in Virginia's Prince William County, plans are taking shape for an opera house that could rival the Kennedy Center's. The county will work with George Mason University, which already hosts performances at its Patriot Center, and will heavily subsidize the opera house. The opera house will be built on land donated by the university.

Strathmore's new concert hall, designed by William Rawn Associates, Architects of Boston, will host 26 annual presentations of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which will play there virtually every program that it performs at its home auditorium, Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore. This makes the orchestra one of the first in the country to offer regular weekly concerts in two communities throughout the season. Its presence is expected to offer direct competition to the National Symphony Orchestra, in residence at the Kennedy Center.

Strathmore also is slated to become the primary venue for a local philharmonic orchestra, a dance company, a youth orchestra, a music school and the Washington Performing Arts Society. It also will host concerts by the Choral Arts Society of Washington and other established performance groups in the region. Its nonprofit foundation, which will operate the hall, is planning to offer programming for school groups.

Montgomery officials and arts patrons say they have reason to believe that the audience is out there eagerly waiting. A 2002 study by the Urban Institute showed that in the Washington area, residents attend live performances far more often than sporting events. A marketing study for Montgomery County suggested that convenience was often a factor when people decided to avoid going downtown. Officials believe Strathmore may be able to attract an audience with its proximity to Metro and the recently constructed covered walkway to take concertgoers directly to the hall.

While new suburban performance venues have caused some anxiety in the downtown arts world, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) -- who helped lead the political fight in Annapolis and Rockville to finance Strathmore and then argued for more money when the project went millions over budget -- said he is convinced that there is a market for the arts in the city and beyond.

"We are a community of almost 1 million, double the size of the District and 50 percent bigger than the city of Baltimore," he said. "We had a study that showed you have a whole lot of people going to the Kennedy Center and the National Theatre in the District, but there is a whole group of people who aren't going anywhere. They won't go to the Kennedy Center because it isn't convenient for them, and they have the education and income levels to want to go somewhere. We are adding to the audience base in the region."

To arrive at this moment, Strathmore's supporters overcame significant obstacles. Arts groups, politicians and Gazette newspapers chief Charles L. Lyons, who served two stints as president of Strathmore's board (1996-2000 and 2002-03), had to reach into a donor base focused primarily on downtown Washington and Baltimore. Among the largest contributors were Lockheed Martin Corp., Constellation Energy Group, Choice Hotels, the Marriott Foundation, Chevy Chase Bank. Divisions of The Washington Post Co., including The Gazette, gave $1 million.

A substantial lobbying campaign was also needed in the late 1990s to win over then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), who was more interested in construction of the Clarice Smith Center at the University of Maryland in College Park. A coalition of state lawmakers from Baltimore and Montgomery County, often at odds over issues such as funding for school construction, found common cause in Strathmore as a way of helping Montgomery County and Baltimore's financially ailing symphony.

As funds became available, Strathmore engaged one of the nation's leading acousticians, Larry Kirkegaard, who improved the sound at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall when it was renovated in 1997. At Strathmore, Kirkegaard has sought to build a hall that is naturally receptive to symphonic and classical music and that can be adjusted, through canopies and padding, for amplified music as well.

Analysts say the advent of major arts organizations in the suburbs is part of the natural maturing of what were once primarily bedroom communities. With population and jobs migrating beyond the city limits, many suburbs are now closer to being self-contained.

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