Eliot Pfanstiehl has to laugh when somebody asks him, “What is Strathmore?” He laughs not because it’s a bad question, but because, a year-and-a-half after the concert hall at Strathmore opened, plenty of people who live within minutes of Strathmore still don’t know exactly what’s going on there.
“We have learned that we have managed to confuse the public really well,” said Pfanstiehl, president and CEO of the Strathmore Hall Foundation. “The lesson learned in 18 months is ‘Simplify.’”
That’s easier said than done. There’s tons going on at Strathmore’s 11-acre North Bethesda site. Many people are familiar with the concert hall at Strathmore, which opened in February 2005. The Music Center is a major component of Strathmore, but it is not the beginning and the end. Strathmore includes a mansion with art galleries and a sculpture garden, outdoor concert pavilions, a concert hall and an education center. It is Montgomery County’s first center for the arts, a concept more than 25 years in the making. Its ambition is to bring artistic opportunities on par with those that have been downtown for so long.
“It makes you redefine where you live,” Pfanstiehl said. “You look at the hall, and you go, ‘Whoa, we must be real.’ … This is the county’s hall.”
ALONGSIDE Rockville Pike, and less than a mile from both the Beltway and Interstate-270, Strathmore’s location is as suburban as it gets.
Through the 20th century, American high culture was the near-exclusive domain of cities. People went to the Met or Carnegie Hall in New York; they went to the Kennedy Center and Smithsonian museums in Washington.
A large part of the premise behind Strathmore is that this has changed. Culture, like so many people, has migrated from the cities to suburbia. “Montgomery County is very diverse,” Pfanstiehl said. In the 21st century, a typical resident “is very international.”
In the 18 months since Strathmore’s Music Center opened, 79 percent of its attendees have come from Maryland, most of them from Montgomery County, according to Georgina Javor, of Strathmore’s public relations department.
All the locals come as little surprise to Pfanstiehl.
“As our population ages, they’re less willing to go downtown,” Pfanstiehl said.
Strathmore isn’t trying to be the Kennedy Center. Pfanstiehl said there are events — especially Broadway-style musicals — that won’t fly at Strathmore’s concert hall because of the stage design. Even the architecture of Strathmore’s Music Center distinguishes it from urban halls. Architect William Rawn designed the Music Center, with its rolling wave-like shape, to evoke its suburban setting. “We’re not in a big, bustling downtown,” Pfanstiehl said. “We’ve got trees and hills.”
The Music Center is the fruition of ideas born in 1979, when Montgomery County acquired the 11 acres and the mansion for $1.7 million. The Strathmore Hall Foundation was incorporated to develop the grounds and its facilities as an arts center for the county.
For years, the Strathmore Hall Foundation reached as far as its facilities permitted. The mansion reopened in 1983, suitable for small-scale visual art exhibits and indoor concerts. In 1988, Strathmore dedicated its gazebo, which could hold 30 musicians and some 400 patrons for outdoor concerts. Renovations to the mansion in 1997 enabled Strathmore to host more elaborate gallery art displays.
In 2001, Strathmore broke ground on the Music Center, a project that cost $98 million. Half came from Montgomery County, the other half from the state of Maryland.
The 2005 opening of the Music Center allows Strathmore to aim yet higher in the caliber of musicians it hosts. The presence of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and internationally renowned musicians like cellist Yo-Yo Ma, help create a cultural climate that Pfanstiehl hopes will perpetuate among locals of all ages.
TOGETHER, Strathmore’s many components create an artistic environment that reflect the changing nature of Montgomery County. Pfanstiehl also hopes it will expand residents’ horizons, too. “I want a democratic performing environment,” he said.
On the following pages, the Almanac looks at several of Strathmore’s most pivotal components — the Music Center’s concert hall, the Education Center and the Mansion at Strathmore.