With a bit of academic solemnity from George Mason University President George W. Johnson, a performance of professor Stephen Douglas Burton's "Fanfare for Peace" by the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra and the cheers of an audience of nearly 2,000, Northern Virginia's answer to the Kennedy Center opened for business Saturday night.
The inaugural program of the university's Center for the Arts gave a fair sample of what will be presented there regularly:
Symphonic music: Col. Arnald D. Gabriel conducting the Burton fanfare, followed by the first movement of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1, with William Hudson conducting and Andre-Michel Schub as soloist.
Three kinds of comedy, supplied by Peter Schickele (of P.D.Q. Bach fame) and the semipro Musica Antiqua; by stand-up comedian Robert Klein; and by master of ceremonies Marvin Hamlisch.
A bit of pop music from classical stars: Soprano Roberta Peters sang "How Deep Is the Ocean" and a Fred Astaire medley after she finished "Caro Nome," and Jean-Pierre Rampal played ragtime and jazz along with Bazzini's "Ronde des Lutins."
A bit of musical theater right out of Broadway.
The program, smoothly choreographed as a television gala, began and ended with composer-pianist-emcee Hamlisch. He started the entertainment by wandering onstage, blinking for a moment in the bright lights and turning to tell the audience in a well-miked confidential tone: "The star of the evening undoubtedly is this wonderful theater." The program ended, nearly three hours later, with Hamlisch's "One," from "A Chorus Line" -- danced by a full chorus line and repeated as everyone connected with the program came on to take a bow and then join the dancers. Johnson, who had opened the evening with an invocation to the spirit and the state of becoming, ended it doing high (well, moderately high) kicks amid a chorus line glittering in gold-colored top hats and tails. This seemed an appropriate beginning for a hall that will be the new home of the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra as well as the university's own orchestra and chorus, and that has a list of big-name performers scheduled for its first season.
The inaugural variety show made no daring experiments in programming but provided solid, middle-of-the-road entertainment throughout. Schub has repertoire and performance styles a lot more specialized in appeal than the Tchaikovsky concerto, and he does not play with the kind of pure muscle that brings audiences to their feet in this music, but he gave an intelligent, well-proportioned interpretation.
Peter Schickele's humor can get a lot more musicological than the four folk songs performed on this program, which depend, for their effect, largely on mezzo-soprano Dana Krueger's great talent for looking uncomfortable. Hamlisch himself has become one of the icons of middle-of-the-road musical entertainment, and he supplied some of that with piano renditions of his own songs, plus a medley he called "The Three Songs I Wish I Had Written" -- "Someone to Watch Over Me," "Somewhere" and "Send In the Clowns." Then he sent the audience out to intermission, warning that the center, which is not yet fully landscaped, is also not quite ready for lavish entertainment: "They have three trees and a lot of apple juice. In a few years, maybe -- hot dogs."
The apple juice (free with the $35 ticket) ran out during intermission. That, plus occasional miking problems in a hall that should not need a mike, were the evening's worst problems. Other discomforts: The auditorium (like many today) has no center aisle, so you may have to climb over 25 people to reach your seat. The parking lots are about a five-minute walk from the auditorium, which is all right on a mild October evening but may keep people away in winter or rainy weather. And the restrooms seemed far too small for the crowd during intermission.
But the theater itself seemed comfortable, superbly equipped and ready to start a new chapter in the history of performing arts in Northern Virginia.