Orange County launches new performing arts center. Questions over acoustics and expense still persist

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Orange County's new Performing Arts Center has opened with a week of black-tie galas, concerts, and generally favorable comment. Residents, civic groups, politicians, guilds, and trustees spent seven evenings toasting the triumph of volunteerism and the private sector.

More than $70 million was raised in private donations.

The mammoth structure of glass, steel, mirrors, and sweeping arches is now a visual as well as cultural centerpiece of the county.

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``It's the most intimate cavernous structure I've ever seen,'' one life-long Costa Mesa resident said of the 3,000-seat, burnt-red interior.

Standing in front of the portable proscenium stage, which can be pulled out, pushed in, and raised or lowered to accommodate all manner of concert, musical theater, opera, dance, and other performance requirements, she exclaimed:

``We're all so pleased we won't have to drive 50 long miles to the Los Angeles Music Center for world-class entertainment anymore.''

The hall cost $70 million to build and will be run with the help of another $70 million in endowment, much of it still uncollected as deferred pledges.

Thomas Kendrick, executive director of the center, says he expects deficits of about $4.5 million a year for the first five years.

Though most people agree that the hall will help the county shed its status as a cultural suburb of greater Los Angeles, some critics are wondering if the enormous center will continue to attract audiences once the excitement of the launching has faded.

There has also been some negative comment on acoustics.

``At first hearing, Segerstrom Hall [named after the family who donated land and $6 million to get the project started] did not quite turn out to be the acoustical marvel predicted by the local drum beaters,'' wrote Martin Bernheimer, long-time Los Angeles Times critic.

The first night's concert was performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which he has reviewed on hundreds of occasions over many years.

``If one can judge on the basis of still skimpy evidence,'' he continued, ``the hall seems to favor the brass and percussion at the expense of the strings and winds. It also seems to cope better with small sounds than big ones.''

An international team of award-winning designers has tried to combine the excellent sight lines of fan-shaped theaters with the acoustic superiority of shoe-box-shaped halls. The technique they used was to surround each tier of audience with reflecting surfaces meant to produce strong enveloping sound with ample reverberance through lateral reflections.

But this reporter found the prodigious vocal gifts of singer Leontyne Price -- known for her great talent for projection -- lost in the wide expanse during one of last week's opening performances.

Other observers have raised the question of how the large-capacity hall will generate sufficient income in the 10 years before income from its generous endowment begins to flow.

They also question what effects tax reform will have upon future discretionary giving.

As yet, no one really knows how audiences will react to the hall's visual properties -- seating that fans out from the stage to accommodate more patrons, rather than the more traditional rectangle shape.

The first dance performances on Oct. 15 by the New York City Ballet will help make that clear.

One design critic even took a potshot at the local mentality, wondering if the facility could realistically be expected to compete with the other Orange County attractions such as Disneyland, Knotts Berry Farm, golf courses, tennis clubs, and beaches.

But mostly the new center is being seen as a triumph of organization and interest by a community determined to establish itself as a world-class setting for the arts.

Five years ago, the five-acre plot in the geographical center of the county was a field of lima beans. In 1969, a feasibility study had found that nearby Newport Beach was not acceptable as a site for the center.

A Santa Ana group examined 19 parcels of land, rejecting nearly all of them after careful consideration. Then the Orange County Music Center board of directors approached the owners of the prime location.

Directly off of two major freeways, the site also sits adjacent to one of southern California's premier retail districts: the South Coast Plaza.

The gift of land and cash from the Segerstrom family is being touted as the largest single gift ever made to the performing arts in United States history.

The building is a highly appealing architectural marvel, inside and out. The hall is visually inventive, comfortable, and luxurious. Lobbies are designed so patrons can be seen in great folds of ceiling-high mirrors and from balconies that overlook lower levels and the streets outside.

Already booked are the New York City Ballet, the American Ballet Theater, the New York City Opera, the Joffrey Ballet, the Chicago Symphony, and the New York Philharmonic.

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