Banking on Strathmore

February 03, 2005|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

The sparkling $100 million Music Center at Strathmore, which officially opens today, isn't just a building in which to hear music. It's a leap of faith into the future.

A lot of people have a great deal at stake in Strathmore. For the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, facing a debt expected to reach $12 million by 2008, the hall means access to a new group of ticket buyers and donors. For Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, it's a feather in his cap at a time when he's frequently mentioned as a possible candidate for governor. And for the National Symphony Orchestra, it could be the opening salvo in what could become a battle of the bands.

"Strathmore Hall got built because so many people wanted it built," said Eliot Pfanstiehl, the facility's president and CEO. "There wasn't a person with a reason. Instead, a lot of people found that it fit in with their missions. That's why I think it's going to be sustainable."

Strathmore, situated on 11 pastoral acres in North Bethesda, is a 1,976-seat music hall and an education center. In addition to the BSO, it has five smaller tenants.

The Maryland Classic Youth Orchestras is getting its first permanent home instead of being spread across three schools. The organization's files no longer will be kept under the executive director's bed, the music library no longer is stored in the Silver Spring Public Library, and students no longer will have to rehearse in the cafeteria.

"Strathmore Hall is going to change our county overnight," said Duncan, who was instrumental in planning for the hall and overcoming political resistance to it. "The cultural opportunities in Montgomery County will increase geometrically. Will it make money? No. Buildings of this type never do. Will we need a state subsidy? Yes. But we deserve to have a facility like this."

But perhaps no group has more hopes embedded in the new venue than the cash-strapped BSO, Strathmore's largest and most prominent tenant. It is becoming the only American symphony with permanent homes in two major markets - and one of the few to have a new hall in the suburbs.

"Strathmore Hall will ensure the future of the Baltimore Symphony," said Calman J. "Buddy" Zamoiski Jr., the former longtime chairman of the BSO board of directors who played a crucial role in getting the facility built.

The hall, however, is a major new competitor in the National Symphony Orchestra's back yard. The NSO performs in the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, about 10 miles from Strathmore. The Kennedy Center draws about a third of its audience from Maryland, and a 1994 study showed that Montgomery County residents attend performing arts events twice as often as the national average.

Rita Shapiro, the NSO's executive director, said it's too soon to tell if the Baltimore Symphony will siphon off any of her 16,500 subscribers. "That remains to be seen," she said. "However, we welcome the opening of Strathmore Hall. We want people to be attracted to symphonic music. We're excited there's another really fine orchestra here."

Ticket sales at the NSO haven't declined for concerts scheduled for the months after the BSO's Strathmore debut, which is Saturday night. "So far, our sales for the spring of 2005 are quite strong," Shapiro said.

Pfanstiehl has booked 86 performances for the four months remaining in this season, and he predicts Strathmore will be rented for 200 nights in 2005-2006 - well above the break-even point of 120 occupied nights.

"We're running well ahead of projections," he said. "Even when the performance hall is dark, the music center will be lit up like a Christmas tree seven days a week with lights and people and activity."

The BSO will perform at Strathmore roughly 40 times each year. The Saturday night series for 2004-2005 is sold out, and the Thursday night series is about 75 percent sold, said orchestra president James Glicker. The remaining concerts (the lighter Symphony with a Twist and BSO Pops series) have sold nearly half of the available tickets.

But attracting ticket buyers might be less difficult than finding new donors, though they're there to be found. Montgomery County's 950,000 residents are statistically among the wealthiest and best-educated in the nation.

While Strathmore has amenities the Kennedy Center lacks (a hassle-free commute for Montgomery County residents and free parking), it never will have the cachet enjoyed by the nation's national arts center.

"I don't expect to get many donors this year because the hall hasn't opened yet," Glicker said. "Once it does, I think we can persuade people to give to an arts center in the community in which they live."

At the moment, the BSO doesn't even have name recognition. "If you walk around the street down here, most of Montgomery County doesn't know that there is a Baltimore Symphony," Pfanstiehl said, "and if they do know it, they don't think it's anywhere near the quality of the National Symphony."

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