BSO looks to build a new audience Orchestra plans 30 to 50 concerts a year in Bethesda, tapping into an eager audience in the Maryland suburbs of D.C.

July 12, 1998|By Judith Green | Judith Green,special to the sun

When the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra sets up on the lawn of Strathmore Hall in Bethesda on Thursday, it will give a different kind of concert.

This is actually the third time the BSO has played on a summer evening at Strathmore, but in previous years the concerts have been just for the fun of it. This week, the BSO stakes out its future.

In four to five years - four, if all goes according to the plans of Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan - the BSO will have a year-round hall behind Strathmore, a historic mansion built in 1902 on 10 acres of beautifully maintained grounds.

It is projected that the orchestra will play between 30 and 50 concerts annually at the Montgomery County site, which also will provide a state-of-the-art venue for touring and local performing arts groups, says John Gidwitz, executive director of the BSO.

The new hall, practically in the back yard of the National Symphony, will give the BSO access to Maryland's largest (population 830,000) and richest county.

"It will be a quality cultural amenity that we don't have now and that the people of this county deserve," says Duncan.

For the BSO, it will provide extra income and employment, a new market and increased exposure in the Washington area. It would be a summer home with greater potential than Oregon Ridge, which has traffic and parking problems.

And it's a victory for Baltimore in the latest skirmish of a continuing campaign by Washington arts groups, dependent for survival on funding sources outside the District of Columbia, to cement alliances with its suburbs.

The National Symphony cast its lot with Virginia some years ago by turning down an offer from Strathmore in favor of one from Wolf Trap Farm Park for the Performing Arts in Vienna, Va. By taking up the Strathmore option, the BSO extends its territorial -- imperative to the western half of the state - and virtually into the District itself.

The planned 2,000-seat Strathmore Hall performing arts center is modeled on Ozawa Hall, a new facility at the Tanglewood Music Festival in Lenox, Mass., summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Designed by William Rawn Associates, the versatile Ozawa Hall is a traditional indoor site whose walls can be removed in pleasant weather to allow the music to be heard (with assistance from acoustical-enhancement technology) by an outdoor audience.

The BSO's Strathmore site, at least as the project is currently envisioned, will offer the same kind of indoor/outdoor access. Lawn seating will accommodate as many as 2,000 more people, says Gidwitz.

The idea of performing during all seasons, instead of just in summer, allows the BSO to maximize what in the arts business is called "recoupment."

Right now, for instance, the orchestra generally allots three rehearsals for a standard three-concert Meyerhoff Symphony Hall program set. If an additional concert is played at Strathmore Hall, the orchestra can have four income-generating events to defray the costs of those three nonincome-generating rehearsals without running out of audience.

It's not quite as cut-and-dried as this, because, as Gidwitz explains, the Strathmore concerts carry their own expenses: advertising and marketing in a different community, facility upkeep, transportation for musicians, additional fees for guest artists. But it gives the BSO a better chance at earned income than it currently has in Baltimore.

Many orchestras of the BSO's size and reputation - Boston, Chicago and San Francisco, to name three comparable ensembles - play each subscription concert four or even five times a week, whereas current attendance at the BSO's three-concert series doesn't warrant an additional performance in Meyerhoff.

The new hall will be home to the Montgomery County Youth Orchestra and the National Chamber Orchestra as well, giving these groups an anchor for their activities. It will also present a performing-arts series similar to "Meet Us at the Meyerhoff," the BSO series featuring visiting performers. Negotiations are still going on to determine whether the BSO will control the planned series.

"It's one gorgeous open space," says Gidwitz of the Strathmore site, "but you wouldn't see it" from the nearest artery, Rockville Pike. Most of the acreage is behind the house, and the performing-arts center will be built out of the view of traffic. (This week's concert, featuring a chamber-size orchestra, will be played in front of the mansion.)

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