Washington Conservatory's Michael Adcock Helps Open Group's Glen Echo Park Space

Michael Adcock played in the conservatory recital hall at Glen Echo Park.
Michael Adcock played in the conservatory recital hall at Glen Echo Park. (By Karin Strydom)
By Rebecca Ritzel
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, August 3, 2009

Here's a motivation to get a kid to practice piano -- or other instrument -- if ever there was one: Work hard, and you'll get to go take music lessons in the park. And maybe, if you really nail "Für Elise," you can ride the carousel after class.

The Washington Conservatory of Music opened a new location Saturday at Glen Echo Park, becoming the third performing arts group to take up residence in the former amusement park.

"It's like another piece of the puzzle has dropped into place," said Margo Reid, the park's board president. As she spoke, chirpy calliope music wafted across the park from the 1921 Dentzel Carousel, the only ride still functioning at Glen Echo. These days, people come to the park mostly for aesthetic thrills, like visiting the art studios, the Puppet Co. or the Adventure Theatre. Exterior renovations to the arcade were completed in 2003, and now, with the conservatory moving into the last two garage bays, the building is fully occupied.

Saturday's champagne-and-sandwich open house was a festival of mutual appreciation, with Glen Echo, National Park Service and county officials celebrating the music school's arrival, while conservatory supporters reveled in their new space.

"Yes! Finally," said Kathy Judd, the school's executive and artistic director, a normally genteel woman who pumped her fists at the ribbon cutting. For 24 years, the conservatory has been offering music lessons in Montgomery County. Like the similarly minded but larger Levine School of Music, the conservatory is nationally accredited. Unlike Levine, it lacked a dedicated space. Most of its 500 students take lessons at Westmoreland Congregational United Church of Christ.

That arrangement will continue, however, the conservatory can now boast what may be the most efficiently used 1,800 square feet in Bethesda. Half of the space is a recital hall, which as Judd discovered Saturday, can hold more than 100 if 83 people sit in chairs and the rest of the patrons recline on pillows or stand. The three walls are painted green, gray and white, with giant treble clefs appliquéd to the moss-colored wall. At the rear of the room is the original arcade garage door. It looks like an environmentally friendly space, and it is.

"We very strongly wanted to -- what do you say? -- recycle and reuse," Judd said. The floors are made of recycled tiles, a mottled green-and-graphite conglomerate that the conservatory bought on clearance.

"Value engineering," was the goal for Steven Spurlock, the architect, conservatory board chairman and amateur cellist who designed the center. The loft-style upstairs features a listening lab and two studios; the first floor includes the hall, two classrooms, a galley kitchen and a soundproof recording studio.

Judd has grand plans. As early as this fall, the conservatory will present live broadcasts of Philadelphia Orchestra concerts at Glen Echo, with spectators in stackable chairs arrayed before a retractable screen. The new location will also host early-childhood classes and small-ensemble rehearsals. Plus, given past schedule changes because of impromptu church services, students will always have a space to hold events.

Saturday afternoon it was faculty member and piano impresario Michael Adcock who christened the recital hall, presenting a program of all-Latin repertoire, ranging from reflective to fiery. It was a conspicuous choice that contrasted with a not-so-ethnically diverse audience. But the crowd did include about a dozen well-behaved children, including 9-year-old David Lieberman of Bethesda. His favorite piece on the program: a bouncy Heitor Villa-Lobos prelude with complicated cross-hand work. David takes piano lessons elsewhere, but came with his mom, Judy, to check out the conservatory. She thought the space was terrific. David agreed, running upstairs into the loft and hollering "catch" before dropping a free "Washington Conservatory at Glen Echo" T-shirt on his mother's head.

Spurlock said he had youthful antics in mind when he designed the building. He's concerned about schools cutting back on arts education, and hopes more parents pursue enrolling their kids in lessons. "I do think parents are becoming more aware that this is important, " he said. "The kids who come here are really going to get excited about music."

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