With nine new arts cen­ters in a decade, the sub­urbs take cen­ter stage

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY ANNE MID­GETTE

It’s 7:30on­aNovem­bernight in­Manas­sas, andthe ticket line iss­nakingaroundthe foyer of the­brand-newHyl­tonPer­form­ingArt­sCen­terand­nearly to the­door. The­box­of­fice isn’t ac­cus­tomed to the rush. ¶ It’s not just that the cen­ter is new. It’s that theNOVAManas­sas Sym­phony Or­ches­tra, the en­sem­ble of am­a­teur and stu­dent mu­si­cians that’s per­form­ing tonight, has­n­ever played toanau­di­ence­much­larger than 500, the seat­ing ca­pac­i­ty­ofGraceUnit­edMethodis­tChurch in­Manas­sas, where­i­thas long per­formed. But tonight, the or­ches­tra is start­ing its newsea­son in its newhome, andthecom­mu­nity has turned out in force. More than800tick­ets will be sold, and­toac­com­mo­dateall of the­walk-upticket buy­ers, thecon­cert will star­tal­most25min­utes­late. It’sgood­prac­tice for the or­ches­tra’ssec­ond­con­certof the sea­son, in­De­cem­ber, whenall 1,121 tick­ets for theHyl­ton’sMer­chan­tHall will sell out. ¶ TheHyl­ton isNorth­ern Vir­ginia’s lat­est con­tri­bu­tion to a ver­i­ta­ble­boomof per­form­ing arts cen­ters aroundthe coun­try. If the 1970s sawan in­crease in per­form­ing arts or­ga­ni­za­tions, the 1990s and 2000s have seen a no­table in­crease in places built to house them.

The boom is re­flected nowhere bet­ter than in the Washington area, which — eco­nomic crises be cursed — has seen at least nine arts cen­ters open since 2000.

These range from in­sti­tu­tions that of­fer stu­dio as well as per­for­mance space to ac­tive artists, such as the Work­house Arts Cen­ter in Lor­ton, to more con­ven­tional ones, such as Strath­more in­North Bethesda, whose 1,976-seatMu­sic Cen­ter is the best con­cert hall, acous­ti­cally and aes­thet­i­cally, in the re­gion— in­clud­ing theKennedy Cen­ter.

“Peo­ple al­ways go back and forth lament­ing the de­cline of Western civ­i­liza­tion,” says A. Scott Wood, a con­duc­tor who leads the Amadeus Or­ches­tra in McLean, the Ar­ling­ton Phil­har­monic and a cou­ple of am­a­teur com­mu­nity orches­tras. “ Then you turn around and see . . . these [new] per­form­ing cen­ters. They’re not al­ways amaz­ing, but the stan­dard level of what’s get­ting put up there is so much higher than it used to be. Not to run down Con­sti­tu­tion Hall, but it’s pretty rough, and that used to be the best thing go­ing.”

Here’s what’s strik­ing about these new per­form­ing arts cen­ters: They aren’t in the city.

Per­form­ing arts cen­ters have been viewed as a way to re­vi­tal­ize down­towns at least since the 1960s, when­the then-newLin­coln Cen­ter sparked the con­ver­sion of a seedy area of New York City into some of the most de­sir­able real es­tate in Man­hat­tan, and Los An­ge­les opened its Mu­sic Cen­ter in the heart of down­town.

But not ev­ery­one wants to drive into the city for art. And the rhetoric about the arts be­ing an es­sen­tial adorn­ment to make com­mu­ni­ties at­trac­tive to prospec­tive res­i­dents, prop­a­gated by city fa­thers dur­ing fundrais­ing for these projects, has sunk in: Com­mu­ni­ties out­side ur­ban cen­ters want a piece of the ac­tion.

So, al­thoughWash­ing­ton is cer­tainly not lack­ing in spiffy new per­form­ing arts tem­ples down­town (see Harman Hall and the new Arena Stage), most of its new ones — such as Hyl­ton, Strath­more and the Uni­ver­sity of Mary­land’sClarice Smith Cen­ter in Col­lege Park— are in the sub­urbs.

There are prac­ti­cal rea­sons: Land is cheaper, park­ing eas­ier, fa­cil­i­ties more read­ily avail­able (some cen­ters, such as the Work­house Arts Cen­ter and Ar­ling­ton’s new Ar­ti­sphere, are con­ver­sions of ex­ist­ing build­ings). But these cen­ters also re­flect a shift in what peo­ple want from the per­form­ing arts: more hands-on par­tic­i­pa­tion,

“The sub­ur­ban lo­ca­tion was both an as­set and a chal­lenge.”

— Mon­ica Jef­fries Hazan­ge­les,

Strath­more’s pres­i­dent

less for­mal­ity, more avail­abil­ity and ac­ces­si­bil­ity, less ex­pense, more re­spon­sive­ness to the needs of the com­mu­nity.

As the grav­i­ta­tional pull of tra­di­tional forms of per­form­ing arts grows weaker, mean­ing that peo­ple are less ea­ger to travel a dis­tance to spend a few hun­dred dol­lars to see a con­cert or play, re­gional cen­ters may be the wave of the fu­ture.

Arts come to the au­di­ence

Strath­more makes a bet­ter case study than the Hyl­ton, sim­ply be­cause it has been pre­sent­ing longer. Now in its sixth sea­son, it is a model for both the ad­van­tages and dis­ad­van­tages of pre­sent­ing out­side city lim­its.

“ The sub­ur­ban lo­ca­tion was both an as­set and a chal­lenge,” says Mon­ica Jef­fries Hazan­ge­les, who took over in the fall as Strath­more’s pres­i­dent but has worked at the cen­ter for 16 years.

Prox­im­ity to Washington was con­sid­ered an ad­van­tage. Yet de­spite Strath­more’s lo­ca­tion at a Metro sta­tion, the au­di­ence re­mains pre­dom­i­nantly lo­cal, largely fromMont­gomery County.

Strath­more isn’t alone in this. The Hyl­ton cen­ter, at the Manas­sas cam­pus of Ge­orgeMa­son Uni­ver­sity, might seem re­dun­dant given that GMU’s per­form­ing arts cen­ter at it­sFair­fax­cam­pu­sis only 20 miles away. Yet, “only 1 per­cent of sub­scribers to the Fair­fax cam­pus came from Prince Wil­liam County,” says Jean Kel­logg, the Hyl­ton Cen­ter’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor.

The old par­a­digm has shifted: To­day, the arts have to come to the au­di­ence rather than the other way round.

A lo­cal au­di­ence has its own tastes. What plays in a metropoli­tan area may not have the same ap­peal in the sub­urbs. The Washington Per­form­ing Arts So­ci­ety has worked for years to de­velop an au­di­ence, and that au­di­ence is will­ing to travel to Strath­more to hear, for in­stance, Joshua Bell, who is play­ing there Jan. 26. “Our au­di­ence­mem­ber­sare artist-driven,” says the so­ci­ety’s pres­i­dent, Neale Perl. But Strath­more’s own au­di­ence is an­other mat­ter. When Strath­more pre­sented so­prano DawnUp­shawin2009, there were only a few hun­dred peo­ple in the large hall — some­thing de­cid­edly not the case when she has sung in Washington. “We learned it was a rel­a­tively nar­row-based au­di­ence,” Hazan­ge­les says. “Fo­cus­ing on that high end of per­former was newto us.”

Ur­ban au­di­ences tac­itly un­der­stand that there are dif­fer­ent venues for dif­fer­ent kinds of per­for­mances: clas­si­cal artists atKennedy Cen­ter, big pop con­certs at Ver­i­zon Cen­ter. These dis­tinc­tions are less clear to a sub­ur­ban au­di­ence that wants artists it rec­og­nizes at its lo­cal cen­ter. When Strath­more’s 2009-10 sea­son was an­nounced in TheWash­ing­ton Post, com­menters be­moaned the lack of rock-and-roll on the pro­gram; why, one com­menter asked, couldn’t they get a real show by Elvis Costello, in­stead of hear­ing him with the Bal­ti­more Sym­phony Or­ches­tra?

The Hyl­ton has en­coun­tered the same phe­nom­e­non. “ The Nis­san Pavil­ion is down the road, with 20,000 seats,” says Kel­logg, so au­di­ences are used to big pop shows. “ ‘Why don’t you bring them to the Hyl­ton?’ ” they say. “We have to keep telling them, ‘ This is a 1,100-seat house — how much do you want to pay for tick­ets?’ Or, ‘Great! Do you want to spon­sor it?’ ”

The eco­nom­ics of a big tour­ing road show are be­yond the reach of a small per­form­ing arts cen­ter. Strath­more­does present actssuch asKrisKristof­fer­son, Pat­tiLaBelle andJohn­nyMathis— al­lap­peared or are ap­pear­ing there this sea­son, and all have sold well.

Strath­more’s small size does al­low for un­con­ven­tional ap­proaches. Tra­di­tion­ally, per­form­ing arts cen­ters set their sched­ules well in ad­vance to sell sub­scrip­tions and gauge in­ter­est. Strath­more just elim­i­nated sub­scrip­tions al­to­gether, which ap­proaches heresy to pre­sen­ters.

These days, sub­scrip­tions are plum­met­ing in vir­tu­ally ev­ery art form, and sin­gle-ticket sales are ris­ing. Au­di­ences don’t want to com­mit to events long in ad­vance. Strath­more’s ex­per­i­ment has borne this out: Its ticket sales have soared, said Shelley Brown, vice pres­i­dent for pro­gram­ming. And be­cause there is no sub­scrip­tion plan, no­body minds if the cen­ter adds last-minute con­certs — which has helped Brown en­hance this year’s on­go­ing gui­tar fes­ti­val, since a lot of the artists she’s book­ing aren’t used to sched­ul­ing long in ad­vance, ei­ther.

Pro­hib­i­tive costs

Strath­more has also been thought­ful about its com­mu­nity role. For the hall’s fifth an­niver­sary last sea­son, it of­fered one lo­cal group a chance to per­form for one night at Strath­more. Brown says part of the mo­ti­va­tion was, “Let’s see what peo­ple come up with. I was hope­ful that it would be a big breath of fresh air and some­one would see a use of the place that I hadn’t even thought of.”

What hap­pened, though, was that dozens of lo­cal or­ga­ni­za­tions came up with pol­ished, pro­fes­sional but per­haps con­ven­tional pro­pos­als. The prize was so al­lur­ing — rent­ing the hall and pub­li­ciz­ing the event as Strath­more does would cost about $27,000 — that groups stuck to the hall’s con­ven­tional uses.

“ The costs as­so­ci­ated with a venue like this are so pro­hib­i­tive,” Brown said, “ that peo­ple wanted it much more than I had imag­ined.” (The win­ner, the Amer­i­can Bal­alaika Sym­phony, per­formed at Strath­more last Jan­uary.)

This story high­lights a chal­lenge for sub­ur­ban halls. They may be built for the com­mu­nity, but can the com­mu­nity af­ford them? Even the rel­a­tively mod­est fees at theHyl­ton Cen­ter are ex­or­bi­tant for lo­cal per­form­ing arts group­sthathave been, in­Kel­logg’s words, “per­form­ing in a church, do­ing vir­tu­ally ev­ery­thing them­selves.” To per­form at the Hyl­ton, she said, “most of them are tripling their rental costs.”

At the moment, “ they’re still com­ing out ahead,” be­cause of the in­flux of peo­ple in­ter­ested in see­ing the new hall. Au­di­ence in­ter­est, though, of­ten ebbs in the sec­ond sea­son.

And these lo­cal groups will face new­com­pe­ti­tion­frompro­fes­sion­al­group­slured out­bythe prospect of new au­di­ences and rental fees much lower than those in the city. The Fair­fax Sym­phony and Vir­ginia Sym­phony are ap­pear­ing at theHyl­ton this year; Opera Lafayette, which reg­u­larly ap­pears at theKennedy Cen­ter, is try­ing out a pre­view per­for­mance of its next pro­duc­tion, Gretry’s “Le Mag­nifique,” at theHyl­ton on Feb. 4.

A larger ques­tion is what kind of ser­vice such cen­ters pro­vide to the com­mu­nity. Per­form­ing arts cen­ters are slightly like mu­se­ums; they rep­re­sent the in­sti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion of the arts. In tak­ing a ge­o­graph­i­cal step away from fa­mil­iar ur­ban set­tings and re­defin­ing the lo­ca­tion of “cul­ture,” sub­ur­ban cen­ters are do­ing a sig­nal ser­vice; but the real mea­sure of their value lies in their in­di­vid­ual cu­ra­to­rial abil­i­ties. Some cen­ters, such as the Work­house Cen­ter or the poly­mathic Ar­ti­sphere, are mainly fo­cused on pro­vid­ing space where artists can work. Oth­ers, such as theHyl­ton, have taken on a mis­sion­ary func­tion, ed­u­cat­ing an au­di­ence un­fa­mil­iar with live per­for­mance.

But is ev­ery lo­cal or­ga­ni­za­tion ready to be­come an in­sti­tu­tion? A new per­form­ing arts cen­ter can cer­tainly trans­form one. The Mont­gomery Cham­ber Or­ches­tra got a huge boost when it be­came a res­i­dent com­pany at the new Strath­more; it’s now the Na­tional Phil­har­monic, giv­ing about 35 con­certs a sea­son, about seven times­morethananyof itscom­peti­tors.

The start of the NOVA Manas­sas­Sym­phony’s sea­son in­di­cates a sim­i­lar turn for the bet­ter. But this com­mu­nity or­ches­tra doesn’t have any great am­bi­tions to com­pete with the pros.

“Be­cause it’s a vol­un­teer group, we’re pretty much set on what we do,” says Andy Lo­erch, bas­soon­ist and chair of its pub­lic­ity com­mit­tee. “It’s not likewe’re go­ing to add a lot of con­certs, be­cause [the play­ers] don’t have time.”

Staff writer Jac­que­line Trescott con­trib­uted to this re­port.

MORE PHOTOSTo view a photo

I gallery of the Strath­more, go to wash­ing­ton­


SUB­UR­BAN LURES: Among the host of per­form­ing arts cen­ters at­tract­ing au­di­ences are, top, Strath­moreMu­sic Cen­ter andHyl­ton Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter; above, the stage at Publick Play­house; and right, clock­wise from top left, the Clarice Smith Cen­ter, the Ge­orgeMa­son Uni­ver­sity Cen­ter for the Arts, Black Rock Cen­ter for the Arts and the Fi­lene Cen­ter atWolf Trap.


A MIGHTY FORCE: Strath­more Pres­i­den­tMon­ica Jef­friesHazan­ge­les and chief ex­ec­u­tive Eliot Pfanstiehl on the stairs near the con­cert hall.

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