Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2008

Heart of the arts

Strathmore sends a Valentine to arts lovers everywhere

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J. Adam Fenster⁄The Gazette
Crowd-pleaser: Rhea Levin, 2, of Loudon County, Va., looks out from the Music Center at Strathmore stage during a sneak peek at ‘‘Take A Bow.” The popular program is just one of many free activities scheduled for Sunday as part of Discover Strathmore, a celebration of the arts that’s free and open to the public.
Like any movie star, she is impossibly tiny in person — all glossy bob and radiant smile, her impeccable pink frock cinched smartly at the waist. She glides across the stage, bows to thunderous applause, winks and waves ... and then swings under the banister and hops back into her mother’s lap.

Sometimes the biggest stars to grace the Music Center stage also happen to be the littlest. That’s the philosophy behind ‘‘Take a Bow,” one of the most hotly anticipated events at Sunday’s free Discover Strathmore celebration.

‘‘This is probably my favorite hour of the entire year,” confides Strathmore president and CEO Eliot Pfanstiehl. ‘‘It’s definitely my favorite activity at Discover Strathmore.”

The gist of ‘‘Take a Bow” is this: Kids line up outside the Music Center stage and supply their name, school, age and ‘‘particular talent.” Pfanstiehl introduces each child, one by one, to ‘‘thunderous applause.”

‘‘For me,” he says, ‘‘it’s just so cool to see stars in their eyes when they look at that hall.”

Sights, sounds

Hip-hop poetry, Double Dutch jump rope, loom-weaving, 17th century Italian opera, interactive kaleidoscopic mosaics, avant-garde jazz. To step into Discover Strathmore is to inhabit an eclectic world of visual and performing arts, to explore dance and drama and percussive movement, to watch toddlers sing, teenagers dance and kids of all ages prance and twirl across the magnificent 3-year-old stage.

‘‘Every year, we give it some kind of theme. This year, it’s ‘The Sights and Sounds of Washington,’” Pfanstiehl says.

‘‘We consider ourselves one of the celebrants of the D.C. music scene,” he adds. ‘‘We may live in the county, but we understand the D.C. area.”

That understanding has colored the history of Strathmore, both the Mansion, which became an arts center 24 years ago, and the Music Center, which celebrated its third anniversary on Feb. 5. Pfanstiehl says Discover Strathmore gets ‘‘bigger and better” every year; the same can be said of the center itself.

But no matter how beautiful an arts center may be, no matter how many headliners it books, no matter how diverse and eclectic its programming, at the end of the day, it’s all about reaching out to the community — and cultivating an audience.

‘‘This is a free day for everyone to come and see us,” says Pfanstiehl. ‘‘No excuses. We’re throwing open the doors.”

Hands on

Alfredo Ratinoff is an Aries, an Argentine-American — and an artist.

‘‘I became an artist the day I was born,” he says. ‘‘It’s true!”

And it is: His mother was an artist and at 11, Ratinoff started formal training. There were arts schools in Europe and South America and exhibits around the globe – but Strathmore holds a special place.

‘‘I had my very, very, very first show there in 1992,” says Ratinoff. ‘‘Millie Schott, who I call my ‘art mother,’ gave me my first show in the area.”

Schott, Strathmore’s director of fine arts, has been part of the Mansion-based Strathmore visual arts component since 1990. For Sunday, she has put together a roster of local artists who will demonstrate their crafts – from watercolor with Michaele Harrington and calligraphy with Shane Perry to wood turning with Eliot Feldman and Doug Pearson and sign-inspired loom weaving with Jennifer Mayster. Ratinoff will demonstrate brushwork – and invite visitors to join him as he works on an installation in the Mansion’s outdoor sculpture garden.

‘‘This is a one-of-a-kind project,” he explains. ‘‘We are going to be creating a 5-foot kaleidoscope.”

Kaleidoscopes have long been a familiar sight at Strathmore – thanks to local artist-collector Cozy Baker – and Ratinoff is excited about his day’s work.

‘‘It’s not a ‘hands-on’ enterprise,” he says, ‘‘but people can see the clay, smell it, touch it.

‘‘You have to integrate people into your work!”

All together

But collaboration is what Strathmore is all about. Resident partners include the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the National Philharmonic, Montgomery Classic Youth Orchestras, CityDance, the Levine School of Music. And all the partners have plans for Discover Strathmore.

‘‘CityDance comprises so many parts,” says Dina Ghandour, a dance company spokeswoman. ‘‘We’re mainly showcasing our professional dance ensemble and our educational component.”

That means an open class in Room 304 for visitors of all ages who might have an interest in Afro-fusion hip-hop dance. Ghandour says it’s ‘‘a very informal, casual class: 20 minutes each, so you can get a taste.”

Upstairs in 405, the professional company will perform – also in 20-minute snippets. CityDance students range in age from 18-month-old mommy-and-me dancers to seventy-somethings in leotards and buns. But Levine School of Music can top that.

‘‘There are really no age limits at Levine,” says Karen Shepherd, director of Levine’s Maryland campus. ‘‘Our oldest music program participant turned 100 last spring. It sounds trite to say ‘4 months to 100,’ but it’s true.”

Levine plans to showcase its baby and toddler classes, from Musikinesis for tiny tots to Percussion on the Move, geared to kids of any age.

‘‘Plus there are faculty performances throughout the day,” adds Shepherd. ‘‘We’re more involved in Discover Strathmore this year than we have been in the past. We want to show how multifaceted we are.”

As many facets as the Mansion and the Music Center and the creative partners may have, the glamour of the center stage spotlight is pretty tough to top.

‘‘It’s that chance to see what it might be like if you end up being a performing artist,” says Strathmore’s educational program coordinator Betty Scott, watching her granddaughter Chloe frolic onstage. ‘‘It teaches audience manners, helps everyone appreciate that we’re all family here at this wonderful hall.”

Pfanstiehl sees the wonder, too.

‘‘The shy ones are so cute; the bold ones are audacious,” he observes.

‘‘Some day in the future, a performer will come back and tell me that the first time they ‘got the virus’ was here, taking a bow.”

Discover Strathmore takes place on Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., in the Mansion, 10701 Rockville Pike, and the Music Center, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Patrons for Discover Strathmore should take Metro or park in the Metro garage at the Grosvenor-Strathmore station. Admission is free; no tickets are required; strollers are not permitted in the Music Center. Call 301-581-5100 or visit