George Mason University officially raised the curtain on its new Center for the Arts last night, adding a cultural attraction to a school and a region reaching for national attention.

Nearly 2,000 black ties and formal dresses piled into the concert hall to hear the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra, led by William Hudson, launch into "The Star Spangled Banner."

"This is a fantastic milestone," said Earle C. Williams, president of BDM International and a member of the GMU Foundation Board of Trustees. "This is the focal point for the development of a true Northern Virginia community. A place where people from all walks of life can come together."

The $32 million Center for the Arts, of which the $12 million concert hall is the crown jewel, is part of GMU President George W. Johnson's strategy to put George Mason on the map. Since arriving in 1978, Johnson has contemplated finding a way to make a name for the little-known commuter school on the southern edge of Fairfax City.

The names performing last night were testament to that desire to reach the big time: Marvin Hamlisch, P.D.Q. Bach, Roberta Peters, Robert Klein and Jean-Pierre Rampal. CIA Director William Webster and Capital Centre owner Abe Pollin were among the guests.

Johnson's ambition to put his school on the fast track to national prominence was echoed in his opening remarks to the crowd.

"What's really happening here tonight is the beginning of a dream," said the former English professor. "Dreams are the stuff of this university. A university that conceives of itself not as a place but as a state of always becoming, dreams realized and dreams begun."

The arts center is part of a three-pronged effort, including concentration on public policy studies and information technology, that Johnson has launched during the last 10 years to make the university an integral part of Northern Virginia.

Johnson, 62, has banked on the center as a showcase embodying his commitment to the arts. Virginia legislators, developers and business leaders who have been counting on George Mason to provide a cultural anchor have dug into university funds and state bond money to open the center, which came in $2 million over budget.

The new hall of almost 2,000 seats can be converted to an 800-seat theater by lowering its lights bridge. Adjacent to it is the school's performing arts building, completed in 1988, with black-box theater, rehearsal halls, classrooms, and music, dance and drama studios; behind that is the 521-seat Harris Theatre.

The new arts center is headed by former New Yorker Caroline Werth, 37, who for 10 years produced a concert series for the Colden Center for the Performing Arts at Queens College.

Werth, who has been on the job about 18 months, developed the programs for the concert hall and mapped out its marketing strategy, targeting Northern Virignia in particular. Several big names will appear on the arts center stage in the months to come: Leontyne Price, Itzhak Perlman, the Martha Graham Dance Company, Wynton Marsalis, Roberta Flack, Mel Torme and the Boys Choir of Harlem. Orchestra seat prices for a series range from $117 for Great Artists to $41 for Family Entertainment.

Almost 6,000 of the 8,000 subscriptions have been sold, including sellouts for two series: Great Performances and Great Artists. Ninety-nine percent of the first 2,000 subscribers live in a Virginia corridor extending from Arlington and Alexandria to as far as Richmond.

Werth, who is expected to bring in enough money to pay for about 60 percent of the hall's direct costs as well as artists' fees, has to come up with about $600,000 this year. Some additional money will be raised by renting the concert hall, this season, for example, to the Fairfax Symphony and the Northern Virginia Youth Symphony.