BSO looks down the road Expansion: Baltimore's orchestra could play about 40 concerts a year in Montgomery County if a planned concert hall is built.

October 20, 1998|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra wants a home away from home. Montgomery County craves culture. The governor insists upon good community planning.

Marrying the arts and geopolitics is producing a new composition in the Washington suburbs. Call it the Smart Growth Symphony.

The cultural event is playing out at Strathmore Hall, a 96-year-old mansion atop a green hill in North Bethesda that is fast becoming a showcase, not only for Baltimore's best classical music but also for its art.

"Baltimore has huge cultural resources that aren't being tapped by the people of Montgomery County, and it's a shame," said Douglas M. Duncan, the county executive and an enthusiastic supporter of a growing regional role for Strathmore.

A renovation of the mansion in 1997, including a state-of-the-art security and ventilation system, allowed the Walters Art Gallery to schedule a 32-piece exhibit, "Botanical Delights," for five weeks this year.

But the BSO and state and Montgomery County officials hope to make an even larger statement: a 2,000-seat concert hall adjacent to the mansion for about 40 orchestra dates a year.

Strathmore boosters say the site -- next to the Washington Metro's Red Line and major highways -- is exactly what the governor had in mind when he began pushing better planning. A proposed Metro parking garage would serve commuters by day and concert-goers by night.

"If you're going to build a facility like this, Smart Growth says this is the location," said Eliot Pfanstiehl, executive director of Strathmore Hall.

A $1.7 million study of economics, traffic and the environment is under way, with the state and county splitting the cost. Duncan would like to break ground on the estimated $50 million center in 2000 and open in 2002.

For years, the arts communities of Baltimore and Washington have kept separate identities.

"People in Baltimore know the BSO and the Walters and they assume everyone else does. But ask people down here and maybe they've heard of the BSO and the Walters, 'but they can't be as good as the National Symphony and the Corcoran [Gallery],' " Pfanstiehl said.

The BSO dabbled in Montgomery, playing summer concerts on the Strathmore lawn three times.

But now it has invaded National Symphony Orchestra turf. For the first time, the BSO promoted its season subscription packages this fall in a full-page advertisement in the Washington Post.

John Gidwitz, executive director of the BSO, said the orchestra draws well from northern Howard and Anne Arundel counties, and would like to increase its audience from the Washington suburbs.

"We are aware that the BSO is not well known [in Washington]. This was a chance to leave a calling card," Gidwitz said.

A second home at Strathmore would allow the orchestra to add concerts and raise the potential for more income.

But more importantly, the additional name recognition and support help organizations when the state allocates grants. The Walters received $600,000 this year and the orchestra $1.3 million.

"It's becoming one large arts community," said Lynn Wolfe, manager of public relations for the Walters Art Gallery. "This is one way of showing how we benefit from state support."

Pfanstiehl acknowledges a regional approach is an expensive experiment.

"It's an honest-to-God, never-been-done-before statewide effort," he said. "It's not just a run down the road for the BSO and it's not a small investment by Montgomery County. I don't know if it will work, but I'll never get a better chance in my life to prove it."

Pub Date: 10/20/98

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