Strathmore project beams with promise BSO Music Center in Montgomery marks step to 2005 opening


October 21, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

That's show biz. The final steel beam for the roof of the Music Center at Strathmore did not ascend right on cue, despite the pre-arranged cheers and thumbs-up signal from dozens of well-wishers at yesterday's "topping out" ceremony for the $90 million, 2,000-seat concert hall and educational complex that will become the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's second home. And one of the BSO trumpeters scheduled to perform in the brass quintet for the occasion didn't make it.

This might be the only time things haven't gone smoothly for this remarkable cultural project, which is on schedule for an opening by February 2005, if not a month or two earlier. But these little glitches were easily fixed. A BSO staffer, associate artistic administrator Jeremy Rothman, happens to play the trumpet, so he volunteered to save the quintet's day. And as for the construction bit, the crowd just waited a few minutes until a crane got a good grip on the beam, gave the cheers and thumbs-up sign again, and the topping out proceeded neatly against a brilliant blue sky.

The act of raising that beam, adorned with a tree and an American flag, along with signatures from those attending the ceremony, is a symbolic tradition in the construction field. In this case, you could say it was uplifting in more ways than one.

Lots of things are going wrong in the arts today, so any bright spot looks even brighter. Strathmore represents a downright astonishing degree of cooperation among private and public resources - and of foresight. Here's an arts center rising with elegant curves on a pristine, pastoral hillside in the heart of a populous suburban area just minutes from the Capital Beltway. It will be connected by a skywalk to a Metro stop and soon-to-be 2,000-car garage, providing a remarkable level of accessibility.

The Strathmore grounds have something of the inviting, oasis-like atmosphere of Wolf Trap, the performing-arts park in Northern Virginia. You can feel the good vibes the minute the structure comes into view. It's even better inside. It's way too early to speak about acoustics, of course; the last beam may be on the roof, but there's plenty of construction work left. It is possible, though, to sense that this hall is going to sound as appealing as it looks.

Just as BSO music director Yuri Temirkanov had hoped, the basic configuration is the tried-and-true shoebox, the rectangular shape found in most of the great-sounding halls of the world. Of course, shape is no acoustical guarantee by itself. What counts is that Strathmore's acoustics are not going to be at the mercy of the increasingly suspect, souped-up designs that call for endless variety of sound quality via reverberation chambers, curtains and other devices (think Philadelphia's new Kimmel Center).

It looks as if Strathmore will have just two basic sounds - natural, for unamplified music; and, with the flip of a switch, a dampened acoustic created by moving specially designed draperies into position to avoid muddiness in amplified performances. Fine-tuning will certainly be possible, but by keeping things relatively simple, Strathmore's acoustician firm, Kirkegaard Associates, seems likely to score a sonic success. And that means a likely success for the BSO, which plans to play a minimum of 30 concerts a year at the new hall.

The possibilities inherent in this new venue for the orchestra are almost unlimited. "Strathmore will be a catalyst to develop new ideas that we could also do at Meyerhoff Hall," says BSO president John Gidwitz. "In Baltimore, we've got a lot of traditions behind us; we are coming into Montgomery County completely fresh."

And largely unknown. "We have to do a whole communications campaign down there," Gidwitz says. "The Music Center has pretty good recognition in the community at this point," adds Michael Mael, BSO vice president for Strathmore, "but we are new. Obviously, we are not as well known as the National Symphony Orchestra, so it's a unique challenge. We're building a beautiful new hall and building a new audience."

Given a subscription base at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall that has remained flat for years, the prospect of that new audience is doubly enticing. It promises to liven things up, giving a fresh shot of energy to staffers and musicians alike (if they can stand the almost always annoying drive). Temirkanov viewed the prospect of the new venue as a major draw when he was considering the offer to be music director. It's a dream situation for an orchestra, especially these days.

There's another undeniable attraction about the BSO's presence at Strathmore - friendly competition. The National Symphony understandably dominates orchestral life in the D.C. area. And, under the guidance of music director Leonard Slatkin, the ensemble has become a very hot property. But the BSO will soon be able to demonstrate its own considerable assets to a public (and press) not necessarily inclined to notice favorable things about Baltimore. That should be fun.

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