Solomon and the BSO Discord: The Baltimore Symphony wants to establish a presence in the Washington suburbs. But the governor thinks it picked the wrong suburb.

September 29, 1996|By GLENN McNATT

With all the probleems American symphony orchestras are experiencing these days, one might think state officials would jump at a chance to expand the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's audience and financial base to the Washington suburbs.

Yet a proposal by the BSO to do just that met with a cool reaction from Gov. Parris N. Glendening this month - not, apparently, because the governor didn't want the symphony to perform in the Washington suburbs but because the BSO had picked the wrong suburb.

Last week it was reported that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Montgomery County officials have been working quietly for months on an ambitious plan to establish a BSO presence in Montgomery County.

The centerpiece of that plan is a proposal for a $50 million performing arts center on the grounds of historic Strathmore Hall in Rockville, which would make it possible for the symphony to perform many or even all of its concerts both in Baltimore and in the Washington area.

From the symphony's point of view, the plan is a win-win proposition. Most importantly, it would provide an additional revenue source for the BSO in Maryland's largest and most affluent subdivision.

Secondly, it would expand the symphony's donor base and improve its long-term financial outlook.

Finally, it would broaden the BSO's support in the General Assembly by demonstrating that it is truly a statewide cultural institution.

Baltimore City also stands to benefit in important ways from an expanded BSO season in the Washington suburbs. Having the symphony perform in the Washington area would promote the city as a cultural center and actually attract more people to Meyerhoff Hall, said Jane Davis of the Mayor's Advisory Commission on the Arts.

"I don't see any negatives to it," Davis said. "When people the caliber of the BSO go out and perform somewhere else, that actually draws people to Baltimore. It would show there's more to Baltimore than the aquarium, which would be an exciting thing."

Baltimore City Del. Howard P. Rawlings also thinks the Montgomery-Baltimore connection is a win-win for both jurisdiction.

"The advantages for Baltimore are multiple," Rawlings said. "It provides an additional revenue source for the symphony that is much more lucrative than what's in the Baltimore region; it helps improve the relationship between Montgomery and Baltimore City in the sense that it is healthy psychologically having Montgomery County people going to hear the Baltimore Symphony and having a good experience, plus it helps address Montgomery County's problem of being the largest, richest county and not having a major cultural center."

Still, the plan appears to have hit a snag because Governor Glendening, a former Prince George's County executive and University of Maryland at College Park professor, believes a Montgomery County venue would duplicate and compete with the new performing arts center being built at College Park - a project Glendening has championed.

"In terms of tax dollars, it wouldn't make any sense to put $50 million just down the road" from the College Park center, Glendening recently told The Sun.

Glendening's misgivings call to mind the tale of the two women who asked King Solomon to decide which should keep the child both claimed. Solomon ruled the child should be cut in half and each woman take her share, but the real mother withdrew her claim rather than see her child slain.

Like that famous case, the governor's position threatens to kill the very thing it purports to want.

Although it's true that less than 10 miles separate the College Park site in Prince George's County from the proposed Strathmore Hall performing arts center in Montgomery County, the apparent geographical proximity masks important differences between the two locations that would affect the viability of any long-term BSO presence in the Washington suburbs.

For one thing, the new hall planned for the College Park site will be capable of seating only 1,200 people. Symphony officials say for an expanded season to be financially viable they need a hall that seats 2,000 to 2,400 people.

"In general it takes more than 1,200 seats to make large-scale presentations feasible," said BSO executive director John Gidwitz.

"They are different jurisdictions, different halls and different audiences, and each of them makes sense in its own way. I don't see them as incompatible or competitive."

Moreover, the College Park performing arts center is designed to accommodate many other community and university-related activities, which may conflict with scheduling requirements for the BSO.

"The center has a contractual relationship with Prince George's County whereby a certain proportion of its space is going to be available for community-based arts-centered institutions in the county and special events targeted at P.G. County," Rawlings said. "This was done instead of building a cultural arts center in P.G. County."

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