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In the shadow of D.C., a capital place for music

The Music Center at Strathmore outside Washington is no Disney Hall but well worth the $100 million.

June 22, 2005|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

BETHESDA, Md. — Everybody wants something from the nation's capital. For its music constituency, that has long been a good large concert hall. The hall in the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts -- home of the National Symphony, presenter of many of the world's greatest artists and ensembles, frequent host to world leaders -- is not it.

The architecture is hideous -- Speer-like, one well-known critic found it upon its opening 34 years ago. The sound, after a modest acoustical makeover in 1997, has gone from dreadful to something a bit better than dreadful. The view of the Potomac, on whose banks the Kennedy Center sits, is nice, though.

But now the Washington area has finally got a new concert hall. The Music Center at Strathmore is in Bethesda, in a park-like setting, but is adjacent to a Metro stop and only a 20-minute ride from Dupont Circle. It seats about 2,000 -- 500 fewer than the Kennedy Center's hall. It opened in February.

Strathmore cost $100 million to build, with most of that modest sum coming from public money, and is thus meant to serve many constituencies. Next season, Tom Paxton will play there for kids, Maurizio Pollini for adults and Mandy Patinkin for anyone who can put up with him.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 29, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Kennedy Center -- A report in the June 22 Calendar said that Larry Kirkegaard was responsible for acoustical improvements made eight years ago to the John F. Kennedy Center Concert Hall in Washington, D.C. Those improvements were made by Christopher Jaffe of Jaffe Holden Acoustics.

More important, the hall is advertised as having 21st century acoustics, and the Baltimore Symphony, which has a better reputation than the National Symphony, has moved in. The orchestra is a resident company and performs all its programs now in Baltimore and at Strathmore, in effect making metropolitan Washington the only area in the country with two major orchestras offering full seasons in such close proximity.

Performances by the National Symphony at Kennedy and the Baltimore Symphony in Strathmore last week confirmed that Strathmore is indeed the acoustically preferable hall. Both orchestras played quite well, with Baltimore having, perhaps, the slight edge. But at least for now, the National Symphony has little to worry about.

Curiously, both halls are to some extent products of the same acoustician, Larry Kirkegaard. He was responsible for the Kennedy improvements eight years ago and created Strathmore's acoustical design. And because the American Symphony Orchestra League was having its annual meeting in Washington last week, he and his associates were present to describe the workings of both places.

Kirkegaard favors acoustical bells and whistles, although not to as extreme a degree as some other high-tech acousticians. For Strathmore, he has utilized a movable canopy of clear plastic clouds to ferry the sound around the interior in different ways. Behind the stage, and out of sight, are heavy curtains that have three settings. When they are up, the hall is at its most reverberant.

For a demonstration Friday night, a variety of pieces were performed with the curtains at different settings by the National Philharmonic -- a surprisingly not-bad pickup orchestra that is a resident company at Strathmore and is headed by a surprisingly competent conductor, Piotr Gajewski, whose day job is lawyer. From three-quarters of the way back in the orchestra section (there are three balconies and side boxes, making this hall feel less than intimate), the sound of Ravel's "Daphnis and Chloe" Suite No. 2 was liquid and well-detailed.

An 18-year-old violinist, Sandra Meei Cameron, made a big impact in Saint-Saens' "Introduction and Rondo." So vividly present was the sound of her instrument that some listeners asked whether it was amplified. (It wasn't.) She's a talent, by the way. She's already gotten the attention of the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, and her suggestive movements certainly got the attention of many in the audience.

A tacky jazz trio demonstrated the built-in sound system, for which the curtains were down and the canopy up, and it proved dry and inoffensive.

At the Baltimore Symphony's concert Saturday night, I sat in two places. During the first half, in which Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto was played, I had a side box, presumably a choice seat. It was awful. The soloist, Vadim Repin, might well have been playing next door. The orchestra sounded as though it were boxed in acoustically, so dull and distant felt the sound.

Downstairs after intermission -- for a new concerto, "Playing and Being Played," written for Repin by Daniel Brewbaker, and Respighi's "Pines of Rome" -- the room had, once more, sonic oxygen.

The conductor was James Judd, who was substituting for Baltimore's indisposed music director, Yuri Temirkanov. Judd's conducting was obvious, in your face and without character. Brewbaker's concerto flogged a romantic theme to a tiresomely predictable death. Even the Tchaikovsky concerto (of which Repin made an exciting recent recording in Russia with Gergiev) was bland. Neither "Pines" nor "Daphnis" made anything like the impact they had when recently played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Walt Disney Concert Hall.

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