Music center in Bethesda taking shape


September 21, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Just a little more than four months from now, the spotlight will be firmly fixed on the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, generating a glow that will probably be reflected all the way to Bel Air.

The new venue, which will showcase the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, National Philharmonic, Washington Performing Arts Society and others, looks like it's going to be exactly what its proponents hoped for - a major addition to the region's cultural life.

A visit to the construction site yesterday reconfirmed what an ideal location the $100 million center has, an oasis of green and calm on Rockville Pike, with direct access to a Metro stop and parking. The appeal of the building's design, by William Rawn Associates Architects Inc. of Boston, was also freshly reiterated. Nestled into the grounds of the 1899 Strathmore mansion, the gently curving exterior is quite welcoming.

Even in its unfinished state, the 2,000-seat interior, covered in light-hued red birch, is likewise inviting. Although fundamentally a shoebox shape, sharp angles are avoided. There's a curve to the seating, including balconies behind the stage that are "like arms embracing the hall," William Rawn said yesterday.

The aim of the design's intimacy is "to bring citizens together to hear music. I know that really sounds ideological," he said, "but the building is supported with taxpayer money."

For music lovers, of course, the main issue is how the concert hall sounds. The sonic side of things has been designed by one of the world's finest acoustical firms, the Chicago-based Kirkegaard Associates, so the odds favor an aural success.

The preponderance of wood surfaces, even on the seats, should make this a very music-friendly space; other elements, including adjustable acoustical canopies, will aid the effort, too.

Lawrence Kirkegaard's philosophy is to incorporate the best properties of great halls built in the 1800s, but also meet the needs "of the 21st century and beyond." That means serving multiple musical genres equally, including amplified.

The primary need of a classical orchestra has never changed - a natural acoustical space with enough reverberation to give notes what Kirkegaard describes as "a lingering aftertaste."

"Sound is an extraordinarily valuable commodity," he said yesterday, "but it has a sell-by date of about two seconds." A great test of the center will come when the length of reverberation is measured (between 1.6 and 2.2 seconds, he said).

Audiences may hear quite a different BSO from the one heard at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, with its wider, larger dimensions (2,400 seats). The first, high-profile public test of all the ingredients in the Strathmore design will be Feb. 5, in a gala concert featuring the BSO led by Yuri Temirkanov, with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and soprano Harolyn Blackwell.

Meanwhile, if you'd like to get a sense of the Strathmore environment and a view of the center's exterior, there's a free outdoor concert today by the BSO on the lawn adjacent to the new hall. BSO assistant conductor Andrew Constantine will conduct "A Salute to Heroes," a program honoring the memory of 11 Montgomery County residents who died in the 9/11 attacks.

The concert is at 7 p.m. Admission is free, but tickets are required. You can download and print tickets online at Take blankets.

Carter memorial

In Saturday's review of the Nathan Carter memorial concert Friday night at the Murphy Fine Arts Center, I meant to single out the Morgan State University Choir's remarkable countertenor, Kenneth Alston, for his magical contribution in If I Can Help Somebody.

When I hastily conflated a paragraph to save space, I inadvertently linked Alston to the performance of Precious Lord. (The fine soloist in that hymn was Anika Sampson.)

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