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CREATING A CENTER : The Tenant Tenet

<i> Martin Bernheimer is The Times' music critic. </i> FO

Who said Orange County was conservative? If conservative forces were to build an arts center, conventional wisdom would dictate an old-fashioned concert hall replete with ornate loges for conspicuous cultural consumption, glitzy chandeliers for portentous if not pretentious illumination, and neat rows of seats in class-conscious balconies suspended over a square and massive orchestra space. The Orange County Performing Arts Center is nothing like that. Thank goodness.

It is an inviting, boldly modern auditorium--inventive in its unorthodox interior design, generous in its sight lines, democratic in its asymmetrical seating configuration, and, despite a 3,000-seat capacity, extraordinarily intimate in its atmosphere.

Some experts may be disappointed by conditions on and around the stage. There isn’t much wing space. Facilities for setting up and moving scenery are primitive. Storage resources are limited. There is no turntable. Audiences at operas and ballets may have to endure long intermissions.

Still, the stage is big. The playing area is flexible. The jagged proscenium is spacious. Opportunities for creative lighting effects are vast. And--good news for dancers--the floor seems to have plenty of spring.

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Imaginative stage directors and designers have performed miracles in houses far less well-equipped. Conversely, unimaginative directors and designers have created many a dull production in houses blessed with all manner of newfangled technological wondertoys.

The ultimate test of the new facility will involve not the house itself but what Orange County chooses to put in it.

The list of attractions for the inaugural season is impressive--especially if one happens to be easily impressed by safe and famous names.

At the gala opening, Zubin Mehta, everybody’s favorite Parsee conductor, will return temporarily to the local band he abandoned in favor of Fun City. Andre Previn, Kurt Sanderling and Esa-Pekka Salonen will man the Los Angeles Philharmonic podium in subsequent concerts. No one, alas, will woman it.

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Symphonic soloists will include such obvious box-office attractions as Isaac Stern, Jean-Pierre Rampal and Leontyne Price. Among the stellar visiting orchestras will be the mighty Chicago Symphony under Sir Georg Solti and the resplendent Cleveland Orchestra under Christoph von Dohnanyi.

The European contingent will include the Orchestre National of France under the strangely overrated Lorin Maazel and the Warsaw Philharmonic under the strangely underrated Kazimierz Kord.

The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra will spend part of its music-directorless season in Orange County. The immediate region will be represented, one hopes with worthy pride, by the ambitious Pacific Symphony under Keith Clark.

Ballet? The vaunted New York City Ballet, an all-too-rare commodity in Southern California, will offer crash courses in posthumous Balanchine. American Ballet Theatre will trot out a thinking-man’s (Mikhail Baryshnikov’s) “Nutcracker” as a sure-fire pre-Christmas ritual. And on Oct. 12, even Joffrey and Co. will venture the trek from downtown Los Angeles.

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Opera? An Orange County venture with Detroit ties promises--ahem--"West Side Story” plus “Boheme” and a touring “Porgy.” Beverly Sills and the New York City Opera, tossed unceremoniously out of the downtown Music Center four years ago, bounce back with--ahem--"Candide” plus “Madama Butterfly” and “Carmen.”

On paper, it all sounds nice. Comfortable. Easy. Predictable. Possibly just a tad boring.

The Orange County management has repeatedly declared a need for initial caution. It’s better, the executive argument goes, to start slowly than to take potentially costly chances.

Maybe.

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A counter-argument might insist that the glamorous new hall will be an attraction, all by itself, during the first season. It is possible that audiences will come just to see the socio-architectural miracle, and to be seen.

If that is so, a little more artistic daring might have been in order. If the public will come anyway, why not expose it to something new and exciting? John Crosby did that, with emphatic success, in Santa Fe. He realized that his audience, in the arid wilds of the New Mexico desert, knew almost as little about “Carmen” as it did about “Wozzeck.” Therefore he offered both, pretending that Bizet and Berg were equals, that their creations were interchangeable staples.

He didn’t cater to presumed timidity. He catered, with smashing success, to assumed sophistication.

It seems strange that, of only six so-called operas on the Orange County agenda, two--"West Side Story” and “Candide"--are really musical comedies, or unreasonable facsimiles thereof. Another--"Porgy"--is a Broadway hybrid.

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The “Candide” staging, incidentally, was something of a critical flop at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1982. A previous incarnation of the Houston “Porgy” played to surprisingly empty houses at the Pantages in Hollywood back in 1977.

It is disturbing to think that Puccini can be represented with two easy-to-take productions (the City Opera “Butterfly” was first seen in Los Angeles in 1967) while there is no Mozart, no Verdi, no Wagner, no Strauss on the schedule. We appreciate the bromide about crawling before one can walk, but this hardly seems like moving.

The scheduled orchestral repertory is nearly as stodgy. The gala opening program will introduce a minor fanfare by William Kraft. Subsequently, the more adventurous visitors will program relative novelties by Columbe Shapero, Corigliano, Lutoslawski and Ligeti. The list does little to increase the adrenalin-pump rate.

For the most part, Costa Mesa can expect an auditory diet of Beethoven meat and Rachmaninoff potatoes. Forget ear-stretching.

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For some seasoned observers, the crucial question mark looming over Orange County’s aesthetic shopping center involves a potential identity crisis.

Is the performing arts complex going to be just a fancy booking house that offers temporary haven for popular touring artists and organizations? Or will Orange County employ and support the necessary forces to create an independent image?

Lincoln Center, for better or worse, is the home of the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, the City Opera and the New York City Ballet. The Kennedy Center harbors its own part-time opera company and an almost-big-time orchestra glamorized by Mstislav Rostropovich. We all know the names and faces that define the policies of the Los Angeles Music Center.

Orange County, at the outset, doesn’t want to commit itself to specific personalities or perspectives. As a result, the center may be able to accommodate important last-minute visitors when comparable institutions are pre-committed to resident constituents.

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It is worth noting that the Kirov Ballet of Leningrad had to bypass New York this season, simply because there was no room at the various cultural inns.

The Orange County management wants, initially at least, to sustain a more flexible performance schedule, keeping the door ajar for unexpected boons. Although the idea sounds comfortable, in the long run it may turn out to be neither practical nor culturally enriching.

Orange County, we are told, may not want to swear annual allegiance to the New York City Opera if there is a chance that the Bolshoi Opera might use the same dates next year. The philosophy promises variety. It doesn’t promise continuity or growth.

The ultimate answers will come, of course, from the people who pick up the tab. It is the time-honored--well, possibly time- dishonored --American way.

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Without a high-powered, longstanding performing arts tradition, Orange County faces a nervous future. Fundamentally, no one really knows what the masses want, or how much they are willing to pay. Tickets for opening night, we are told, range up to $2,000.

There is no official founders’ circle in the Performing Arts Center. Still, a set of six snob-oriented seats in the “premiere boxes"--front section of the first tier--will cost $600. That means a $100 top ticket, not just for Chicago and Cleveland but also for the homespun Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and the Pacific Symphony.

At the other end of the spectrum, one can find seats at the rear of the top tier selling for $9.17 per concert. Given the remarkable proximity to the stage even in these locations, the bargain is both obvious and reassuring.

The first year in the new hall--the exciting, adventurous, self-congratulatory, nerve-racking, brouhaha year--should be easy. The pervasive worries involve the second season, that frightening time when a major arts program in Orange County begins to become business as usual.

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The house is undeniably beautiful. The spirits are willing. The money is potentially plentiful. The need is obvious.

Nevertheless, the lofty endeavor remains irrational, problematic, unpredictable. It is the nature of the wondrous, perverse, artistic beast.

Onward and, we hope, upward.


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