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BSO's gamble on a second home pays off

BSO's gamble on a second home pays off
The Strathmore on opening night, Feb. 5 2005. (DAVID HOBBY, Baltimore Sun)

On Feb. 5, 2005, the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda opened with a gala concert by its primary resident ensemble and founding partner, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, led by then music-director Yuri Temirkanov. Speeches and festivities were plentiful.

On Thursday, the 10th anniversary of that event will find the BSO again onstage, but with less fanfare. The concert program, conducted by Temirkanov's successor, Marin Alsop, is part of the regular subscription series, not a specially assembled anniversary splash.

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Other than a private dinner for a couple hundred patrons, this BSO night at Strathmore will be pretty much like any other. In a way, this business as usual reflects how well the BSO's venture into Montgomery County has turned out.

"Strathmore is part of who we are now," said Michael Lisicky, an oboist in the orchestra and head of the players' committee.

A decade of music-making in the inviting 1,976-seat concert hall has made the BSO a solid part of cultural life in Montgomery County. All the while, the orchestra has maintained its original role as a mainstay of cultural life in Baltimore, based at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

"Baltimore just wasn't growing enough to sustain a full-time orchestra," said BSO president and CEO Paul Meecham, who joined the orchestra a year after Strathmore opened. "It was a brilliant idea to have a second home."

It also took some getting used to, especially for the musicians

"We would love to work just in Baltimore," Lisicky said. "But Strathmore is supposed to be our savior. And I believe we've developed a presence and an identity down there."

Strathmore, launched by state, county and private money, is home to more than the BSO. The center itself and other organizations present performances. So does a freelance orchestra called the National Philharmonic.

"The National Philharmonic often plays the same music," Lisicky said. "I know our musicians are angry about the confusion that causes."

The BSO's decision to enter new territory required considerable financial risk.

"The initial startup was very expensive," Meecham said. "There were huge marketing costs. And there was a lot of red ink after the first partial season in 2005 [February to May]. But the first full season showed a modest surplus, and every year has made a contribution to the bottom line."

The BSO's Strathmore activities, which account for 30 percent of the orchestra's $27 million annual budget, provide "over $1 million in net surplus," Meecham said. "We averaged 82 percent capacity last season at Strathmore, 71 percent at Meyerhoff."

This season, the BSO added a Sunday matinee series at Strathmore. Educational outreach to Montgomery County schools has expanded as well.

Meanwhile, the orchestra has reduced its Meyerhoff schedule — "Before Strathmore, we did 104 concerts at Meyerhoff; we do 79 there now," Meecham said — but the Baltimore hall continues to be the orchestra's principal residence. Programs are performed multiple times there, once at Strathmore.

The Meyerhoff is also where the BSO holds its biggest fundraiser. And the average donation to the BSO from Baltimore-area patrons is larger than the average from Strathmore patrons.

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"We're looking to strengthen our corporate and foundation support [at Strathmore], and raise the level of the average gift," Meecham said.

Susan Liss, whose late husband helped spearhead the effort to build Strathmore, has served on the BSO's Strathmore board and was the lead volunteer in the 10th anniversary fundraising campaign.

"I believe there is quite a bit of growth potential here," Liss said. "There are always new people coming into Montgomery County. There is still a long way to go, I think, before corporate sponsorships and individual donors are maxed out."

Raising money and awareness in Bethesda for an organization with "Baltimore" in its title has not been an impediment.

"I don't think there is resistance because the name is Baltimore Symphony," Liss said. "I think people really appreciate the quality of the music they hear and the beauty of the hall. I'm a huge fan of Marin Alsop, and time and again, people come up to me to say she is so wonderful. I'm always delighted to hear that."

And Alsop is a fan of Strathmore.

"How many orchestras have one great hall, let alone two? It's incredible for the orchestra to have the opportunity to move between the two acoustic environments," Alsop said. "Because we generally don't do rehearsals at Strathmore, we have to adjust on the spot. It makes the BSO more flexible."

In comparing acoustics, Alsop describes a "rather burnished" quality at Meyerhoff that "enhances the sound, but doesn't lean toward clarity. Strathmore is a very clear, immediate hall. It brings out different strengths and beauty in the orchestra."

The look and ambience of the two places differs, too. Strathmore is the more rectangular, Meyerhoff the more oval. Strathmore is all light wood, Meyerhoff is dark.

"I'll never forget walking into Strathmore for the very first time and seeing all the musicians just looking up, all their heads turning every which way," Lisicky said. "It's a very comfortable hall and a little more intimate [than the Meyerhoff]."

And what of audiences at each hall?

"Both are enthusiastic," Alsop said. "Often in Baltimore, they're scream and whistle, which I absolutely adore, but it's not what a typical classical audience is expected to do. Strathmore is a little more reserved. It feels a little more polite. Of course, whatever I say, it seems like I'm insulting one or the other, and we love our audiences at both places."

One thing about the BSO's dual-city experience has remained constant for the entire decade: "Cursing about Beltway traffic," Meecham said.

Tie-ups on Interstate 495 — Strathmore is located a short distance from a Capital Beltway exit — means that buses for the musicians leave Baltimore at 6 p.m. for an 8 p.m concert.

"And you're returning a little before midnight," Lisicky said. "It makes for a very long day. But you can say that about any job."

So far, BSO fans in Baltimore have not followed the players to Strathmore for concerts. Between 80 percent and 85 percent of the orchestra's Strathmore audience comes from Montgomery County, with the remainder from Howard County, Northern Virginia and D.C., Meecham said.

"It would be great if during our centenary next season, we offered an exchange for people at each so they could go to the other hall and have a tour, get insight into the building and hear a concert," Alsop said. "That could be really fun."

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