The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Montgomery County officials worked quietly for months on an ambitious plan to establish a BSO presence in the Washington suburbs.
Together they crafted a proposal for a $50 million performing arts center on the grounds of a historic mansion along Rockville Pike. It was, they believed, a concept that could broaden the BSO's financial base while enriching the cultural life of Maryland's most populous county.
But Montgomery County's chances of cementing an alliance with the BSO appear slim because the University of Maryland, which is a week away from breaking ground on a $100 million fine arts center on its College Park campus, wants the BSO, too.
And the university has the governor on its side.
The BSO's hush-hush dalliance with Montgomery County became public knowledge Sept. 3 when Gov. Parris N. Glendening disclosed that BSO President Calman "Buddy" Zamoiski had sought $50 million in state aid for the plan.
Glendening, angered by reports that Zamoiski was planning to participate in a meeting of his potential Democratic rivals, charged that the Baltimore businessman was doing so because his request had been rebuffed.
The governor said he rejected the project because it would duplicate and compete with the College Park performing arts center -- a project Glendening had championed. The distance between the project sites is about 10 miles.
Proponents of the Montgomery proposal say they're clinging to hope that their plan can prevail, but more than two weeks later, the governor hasn't budged.
"In terms of tax dollars, it wouldn't make any sense to put $50 million just down the road" from the College Park center, Glendening said in an interview.
Others familiar with the Montgomery project said the $50 million figure referred to the total cost, not the state's share, but there is wide agreement that it can't be built unless the state picks up at least half of the bill.
The issue, however, isn't so much the state's share as competition with the UM center. And College Park President William E. Kirwan thinks the BSO would sound just great in his hall.
"We would just be delighted to have an arrangement with the Baltimore symphony to be here on an extended basis," said Kirwan, boasting about the world-class acoustics being designed into the center's 1,200-seat concert hall.
In an interview last week, the first since Glendening's uncharacteristic outburst, Zamoiski said he recently met with the governor to discuss what he called a "total misunderstanding."
Zamoiski said Glendening urged him to work with university officials to try to set the stage for BSO concerts at College Park.
"We will abide by what the governor has requested," Zamoiski said. He said he has been in touch with university officials to discuss which dates might be available and expects to talk with them again soon.
Zamoiski said he and Glendening "have an excellent relationship, and I think we both intend to preserve it." He said he dropped plans to attend the meeting of potential political rivals to the governor because "the whole concept had been blown out of proportion."
Nevertheless, Zamoiski displayed little enthusiasm for the arranged match with UM.
"I don't know if it would be economically viable because the facility will only seat 1,200 people ," he said. "In order to be economically viable, you need a 2,000-seat auditorium."
Zamoiski betrayed no such hesitation about the Montgomery County location, which he said could be "a very viable concept." He said it is "absolutely correct" that one reason the BSO was interested in Montgomery was to expand its base of donors.
"We think it's an audience we do not now attract. It's a very affluent population in Montgomery County that would be very interested in our performances," he said.
No 'summer home'
BSO officials said the orchestra is not seeking a "summer home," as one state official described the project, but a hall where it could play an expanded concert schedule.
"None of this is in any way in conflict with our commitment to our concerts in Baltimore or Oregon Ridge, for that matter," John Gidwitz,BSO executive director.
The concept of a BSO outpost in Rockville apparently gained momentum at a May 23 fund-raiser for Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat. Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan recalled that he and Zamoiski discussed ways Baltimore cultural institutions could do more in Montgomery County.
Duncan, one of the Maryland Democratic Party's rising stars, said he was enthusiastic about the project because the state's most populous jurisdiction has no real cultural center to call its own.
"I thought this would be a great way to bring Baltimore City and Montgomery County together," said Duncan, one of the leading participants in the political meeting that enraged the governor.
The ideas discussed at the fund-raiser evolved into a proposal for a performing arts center and regular series of concerts by the BSO on the grounds of Strathmore Hall.
But when Zamoiski and Duncan met with the governor last month at the Maryland Association of Counties summer convention in Ocean City, their pitch for state aid elicited no enthusiasm. A longtime professor at UM, Glendening is fiercely protective of the university's interests. He immediately saw a conflict with the fine arts center.
Memories differ about the governor's words. Glendening says he gave an explicit no. Duncan says he didn't, but agrees that the governor's reaction was strongly negative.
Glendening threw one bone to supporters of the Strathmore Hall site. After talking with Zamoiski and Duncan, he directed the Department of Natural Resources to try to acquire a tract adjoining Strathmore Hall for "well under" $10 million.
The governor said he approved the acquisition effort only because he was convinced that the Strathmore Hall property needs a buffer from surrounding development. But in doing so, he raised the hopes of proponents of the BSO-Montgomery alliance.
Hope for persuasion
Del. Peter Franchot praised the decision to acquire the land, expressing confidence that Glendening can still be persuaded to support state funds for the center.
"It's very premature to take Kirwan's response and Glendening's response and say this is how they will feel when the project is fleshed out in more detail," the Montgomery Democrat said. "Regardless of where the BSO ends up, there is a need for a regional performing arts center in Montgomery County."
But the governor doesn't sound very persuadable.
"If they want to do some other type of cultural activity center, we'll take a look at it," Glendening said last week. "If they're talking about a performing arts center, then the answer would be no."
Pub Date: 9/23/96