Here, the arts take center stage

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Located 25 miles southeast of Los Angeles and 15 minutes from Newport Beach, Costa Mesa has been dubbed the City of the Arts. It's a magical, art-filled cultural and even shopping mecca - from its Orange County Performing Arts Center and South Coast Repertory theater complex to many outdoor sculptures and its world-class "anti-mall."

Start your visit to the city by retreating from life in the fast lane at Isamu Noguchi's California Scenario sculpture garden, an island of tranquility. As visitors enter the garden of streams, waterfalls, mountains, and redwoods, they become part of the art-space environment reflected in the glass exteriors of the surrounding high-rise office buildings.

To portray his "dramatic abstract" of California's ecosystems, the artist has created six areas that he aptly named Energy Fountain, Water Source, Water Use, the Desert Land, the Forest Walk, and Land Use.

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Dramatizing the California landscape

The Energy Fountain embodies the vitality of California with its metal wind sock perched atop an eruption of water gushing down a stainless-steel cone into a base of Rockville granite.

Rising alongside a white Sierra granite pathway to a bench, a redwood forest borders the small hillock of wildflowers and grasses of the Forest Walk. The long curving blades of grass flow round the specks of floral color, which change seasonally.

From the bench you can view the Desert Land across the garden, a circular mound planted with native California desert plants.

In Water Source, a 30-foot mountain waterfall representing the water source for the state cascades with a soothing sound, branching into the flowing meandering river below, studded with boulders to suggest rocky streams.

The thin rock borders of Water Use widen as the water flows toward the ocean, symbolic of the creation of rich topsoil as the stream carries earth along its way.

The harnessing of natural forces is depicted in Land Use, an eight-foot-high pyramid of white Sierra granite.

But a favorite for young climbers is the pile of 15 rounded granite boulders, a whimsical homage to his patron, Henry Segerstrom, which Noguchi christened the Spirit of the Lima Bean. It symbolizes the half-century of agricultural use of the land the family donated for the garden.

The sculptural elements reflect the changing natural light that bounces off the windows of surrounding buildings, creating magical mountain landscapes rising as a backdrop above desert scenes. At night, shadows of mountains, wrought by spotlights, play against the stark white wall enveloping the garden, inviting fanciful finger caricatures.

At the nearby Orange County Performing Arts Center, a backstage tour (presented by docents on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 10 a.m.) guides visitors through the dynamics of the 3,000-seat hall, inaugurated 18years ago.

A privately funded venture, built upon the five acres of former lima-bean fields donated by the Segerstrom family (who also own the South Coast Plaza shopping resort), the center is a venue for concerts - from classical to jazz, from Broadway shows to operas and ballets.

The main lobby creates its own drama. As one stands below the enormous soaring mystical firebird, the center's signature sculpture seems to pierce the lobby's glass wall, extending in visual continuity from inside to outside.

Created by renowned sculptor Richard Lippold, whose work adorns Lincoln Center and the Smithsonian, it symbolizes flight, "man's greatest achievement," while reflecting the colors and rhythms of music. The bird's aluminum and steel wings glow gold, amber, bronze, and vermillion as the day's changing light plays upon its struts. Through the center's windows, one can gaze upon Henry Moore's "Reclining Figure," poised on the outdoor terrace, one of the area's many outdoor sculptures.

The center's main hall is fine-tuned regularly by movable rectangular panels on either side of the proscenium, to match the acoustics to the type of performance - solo, symphony, musical theater - and to the size of audience.

The twice-weekly tour includes a visit to the private Center Room, reserved for major donors, richly decorated with Syrian mosaic plaques dating from the 3rd century, and a peek backstage at dressing rooms, rehearsal halls, and the green room, where actors traditionally wait to be called to stage.

Adjacent to the theater, construction has begun on the new Renee and Henry Segerstrom 2,000-seat concert hall, designed by Italian architect Cesar Pelli.

Across the street is South Coast Repertory's new complex. Started 40 years ago by a group of college friends in a storefront, the Tony Award-winning SCR has grown into a magnificent three-theater complex with an annual budget of $8 million.

The theater presents a full range of productions from classics to new plays, some of which have been developed and commissioned in the annual May Pacific Playwrights Festival.

More outdoor sculptures

Browse the rolling green gardens connecting the locations, and one encounters a contemporary sculpture garden. There's "Night Shift," by Jim Huntington; an abstract of Sierra white granite, sliced through the top by a plate of polished stainless steel; "The Ram," a bright yellow steel abstraction by Charles O. Perry; "Fermi," Tony Smith's white marble sculpture homage to Enrico Fermi, the Nobel Prize-winning Italian physicist of quantum theory and atomic structure; and "Sun Ribbon," by Claire Falkenstein, a translucent wind screen of gold, orange, red, and violet stripes.

But even the most culturally oriented visitor probably won't want to leave Costa Mesa without at least peeking into that major shopping extravaganza, South Coast Plaza's "ultimate shopping resort," the highest-grossing mall in the United States, home to more than 280 shops, representing 17 countries, and more than 40 restaurants.

For more information, contact the Costa Mesa Conference and Visitor Bureau at 800-399-5499, PO Box 5071, Costa Mesa, CA 92628, e-mail tourism@southcoastmetro.com, or visit the website, www.costamesa-ca.com.

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