Strathmore Hall was taken out for its test drive Saturday night. More than 900 guests crowded into a gala reception and dinner in Maryland's gleaming new concert hall in North Bethesda, followed by a performance of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
The verdict? The Music Center at Strathmore has all the amenities one could hope for in a luxury auditorium, in addition to delivering a powerful, exciting ride.
"It's incredible," said Sue Pasternak of Silver Spring. "It's giving me tingles."
Upon approaching the hall, guests first noticed the 64-foot- high glass walls punctuating the warm limestone facade, glowing like a tiger's eye.
Inside, abstract swirls of aluminum and Plexiglas hung over the stairwells, like notes of music made visible.
Perhaps, in fact, they were the notes of Venus D Minor, a Washington-based a cappella group that serenaded the guests with "My Funny Valentine."
Among the Maryland politicians at the event were Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan.
"The arts are essential to building strong communities," said Duncan. "They are entertaining, inspiring and provide perspective just when we feel overwhelmed by modern life."
Ehrlich pointed out that the arts generated $33.4 million in state taxes and 12,000 full- and part-time jobs. He said his wife had given him a drum set for Christmas. "I may be performing here this time next year," he joked.
The hall not only will create new cultural opportunities for Montgomery County residents, it has been described as the potential salvation of the cash-strapped BSO because it will provide the symphony access to wealthy new ticket-buyers and donors.
Last night, the women wore furs and feathers and stylish but agonizing heels, the men tuxedos and the requisite snappy bow ties. Everyone looked far too elegant to be a politician, but nearly everyone turned out to be. Those who didn't hold elected office tended to identify themselves by the corporations they represented.
"This facility is going to take the `corridor' out of the Baltimore-Washington corridor," declared state Sen. Ida G. Ruben, a Montgomery County Democrat, who was resplendent in lilac and sequins. "It's all going to be one now."
The guests dined on miniature crab cakes and grilled shrimp, maple-cured smoked duck and grilled halibut. The dessert: a flourless chocolate hazelnut cake in the form of a grand piano.
Barbara Reinike of Lockheed Martin appreciated all those touches. But for her, they paled in importance compared with the acoustics. Reinike was invited to one of the many "tuning concerts" held recently by the BSO, the largest of Strathmore's six resident organizations.
"I thought the musicians were using microphones," she said. "I was shocked when I found out that they weren't. The music in that hall fills every corner. It is like the angels of heaven."