It was Ionarts' first time at the spanking new concert hall at Strathmore (a 30-to-50-some minute Metro ride from D.C.) for Hilary Hahn with the Baltimore Symphony on February 19. Strathmore itself, which still has that "new concert-hall smell," is gorgeous with its light wood, round, inviting curves, isolated balconies along the sides, and despite a capacity of almost 2,000 (1,976, to be precise), it has a very intimate feel to it from the orchestra seating area. The seats are comfortable, and the excitement about the region's new toy still runs high. The shoebox design has a sloping ceiling that rises to some 60 feet at the back end of the hall.
From seat J1 (some 15 feet away from the stage on the left aisle), the sound was present, well defined, and the brass in Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man and Joan Tower's Fanfare for the (cherish the wit!) uncommon woman No.1 had a proper forward edge. The recital from the same position, only on the right (K101) also offered appropriate sound. Accoustic problems can, according to Washington Post stringers and Tim Page, be found on the sides and behind the orchestra.
The real problem, anyway, is that Strathmore isn't quite designed for a concert hall of 2,000. Getting in, everyone is stuck in the narrow walkway towards the entrance and the small cafeteria that fills up in no time, offering far to few seats. Concession stands are few and far between, and one such stand staffed by two bartenders isn't enough for the entire orchestra-seating audience. Which brings me to other bottlenecks. It can't go on that one elevator and one, if broad, stairway is the only way for all the orchestra-seating audience to exit the building. After the concert, a slow crowd aches up those stairs at a snail's pace... amusing from afar, annoying when stuck within.
Another such bottleneck is at the coat check, but even if that is bypassed, there is the worst of them all still waiting at the entrance to the parking garage, where one narrow door is the seemingly only way (there is actually another, but it's not obvious to most visitors) up- or downstairs to the other parking garage levels. Also curious is the decision to have many doors at the lower level lead to a terrace (no smoking, remember!) and design them in such a way that, once out, you can't get back in. (Lest you get noticed and some kind soul opens from within.)
On the upside: It's pretty, there is free parking on the weekends, cheap parking on weekdays, it is right next to the Metro...
Tim Page, Philharmonic Puts the Lie to 'Hear No Evil' (Washington Post, February 14)
Tim Page, Strathmore: Off to a Sound Beginning (Washington Post, February 7)
Superb start at Strathmore (Washington Times, February 6)
Additional Comments by Charles T. Downey
On Saturday, I sang a farewell Mass for the Rector of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Michael Bransfield, who was installed as Bishop of Charleston-Wheeling, West Virginia, on Tuesday. This left me slightly short on time to get all the way out to Strathmore in time for the Baltimore Symphony's concert with Hilary Hahn. Fortunately, I drove like the wind and the concert began a little late, so I was able to find my seat just as the lights began to dim. Even at the quickest pace, it was forty minutes from northeast Washington, and it is more like fifty to sixty minutes of driving from Capitol Hill. I live in the city and I hate commuting (my drive to work is usually no more than 20 minutes), so I am sure that my visits to Strathmore will be limited to those concerts I just can't bear to miss.
This was my first drive out there, and I was sure that once I got off the Beltway, I would just follow helpful signs to Strathmore, but there are no such signs that I saw. This meant that I missed the first turn, had to turn around illegally, and double back, and I was nearly hit by an angry suburban commuter as I searched for the place to turn. That is the first thing Strathmore needs to do: put up more signs. There is parking, plenty of it, in the Metro garage, and on a Saturday or Sunday it appears to be free (much preferable to the price gauging $15 fee at the Kennedy Center). Even on Fridays, the parking will be limited to $4 for those with concert tickets.
Based on one hearing, with admittedly a close seat, the sound in the Concert Hall is good. There was good balance among the instrumental sections of the Baltimore Symphony, and clarity in Hilary Hahn's solo part. I will reserve further judgment until I have heard a few more concerts, perhaps from one of the balconies (which struck me as somewhat like those of the Senate in the more recent Star Wars movies).