Arts Center Opens to Fanfare : Gala Event a Cultural Milestone for Orange County

Times Staff Writer

Orange County declared its cultural independence Monday night with the opening of a $70.7-million Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.

The Center, whose sculptural angles and curves loom over a one-time lima bean field, came to life amid the stirring harmonies of Beethoven, unabashed opulence, fireworks and a mood of community pride.

At 7:30 p.m., in the Center’s 3,000-seat Segerstrom Hall, a sea of patrons in tuxedos and gowns fell silent. Conductor Zubin Mehta brought down his baton and the sounds of the Los Angeles Philharmonic--which for years made its Orange County performances in a high school auditorium--filled the hall, known formally as the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

The moment ended a decade of work by arts groups that searched in vain for a building site until the Segerstrom family donated five acres of farm land and $6 million in 1981. Then followed five years of completely private fund raising, a point of special pride in conservative Orange County, and three years of construction.


Among the famous in the audience was Gloria Deukmejian. The governor, facing a midnight Tuesday deadline with nearly 200 legislative bills still on his desk in Sacramento, had to decline the invitation to attend Monday’s gala opening.

The evening began with the National Anthem, led by soprano Leontyne Price. It was followed by a specially commissioned fanfare by Los Angeles composer William Kraft, Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” and the Beethoven Ninth Symphony, which culminated in a resounding “Ode to Joy” sung by 150 singers combined from two Orange County chorales.

But the music at such concerts matters less than the sound. The event was a moment of truth for three acousticians who crafted the hall’s unusual “asymmetrical” shape, a visual jumble of puzzle-piece shapes and angles designed to envelop the audience in reflections of sound.

The gap between acoustical promise and reality has hurt many new halls, especially so-called multipurpose halls with more than 2,000 seats.

First impressions seemed positive.

“It seems quite resonant,” composer Kraft said at intermission. His piece was designed largely to test the acoustics by stationing performers in various parts of the hall. “There are some things I’m hearing that I’m not quite sure about, but I have to hear the Beethoven.”

“You can hear the colors and the timbres. . . . The musicians can hear each other well,” said East German conductor Kurt Sanderling, who will conduct in the hall Wednesday night and has been rehearsing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the Center.

Mehta also was impressed.


“From where I stand, it sounds wonderful,” he said after a Monday afternoon rehearsal. “I feel good about this hall--I mean it.

“This (Orange County) public, this (Los Angeles Philharmonic) orchestra have waited a long time to play in a hall such as this in Orange County,” said Mehta, who had also conducted the opening concert in 1964 at the Los Angeles Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. “I wish this auditorium long life.”

Said Sanderling: “To say (the new hall) is intimate is too much, but it is not as impersonal” as other multipurpose halls. The general problem with multipurpose halls is that they house performances--opera, ballet, concerts, musicals--with varying acoustical requirements.

The Center also has a rehearsal space that doubles as a 300-seat theater, and another theater of 1,000 seats is planned. It forms a cultural nucleus at one end of Costa Mesa’s Town Center Drive with the South Coast Repertory Theatre, a respected regional theater for which the Segerstroms also gave land.


Orange County developer Henry T. Segerstrom led his family’s effort on the Center’s behalf, fostering a project that has won him recognition as benefactor of the arts. Once the nation’s leading lima bean grower, the family found the land equally fertile for real estate development and built the huge and growing South Coast Plaza shopping center across the street from the new Center.

Goal Was Surpassed

To enthusiastic applause, Segerstrom told Monday night’s gathering that the fund-raising goal of $70.7 million to pay for building the Center had been surpassed by $2.7 million. The money was raised entirely from private sources, individuals and corporations.

“We hope you like what you see,” Segerstrom told the audience in remarks before the music began. “Inspired by private initiative, conceived, designed and constructed by private resources, this Center represents the greatness, individual freedom, ingenuity and enterprise given to our society.


“The generosity of our donors has established an inspiring standard for other cultural institutions across this country. . . . It will be said of your achievements that to work for the good of others is the noblest of all human endeavors,” the developer said of the project that has won him praise as a benefactor of the arts.

Reagan Message

The loudest applause at the beginning of the evening greeted the words of President Reagan, whose telegram was read by Timothy Strader, president of the Arts Center.

“The Performing Arts Center of Orange County is your own in a very real way,” Reagan’s message said. “You have made it possible with your own contributions, and that demonstrates broad public understanding of the asset such a center represents to the community.”


About 30% of the $73.4 million raised represents as-yet-unpaid pledges. Despite the enthusiasm that has built toward the theater’s opening, Thomas R. Kendrick, its executive director, has said the Center faces a rougher economic future than many such facilities. Kendrick, former operations manager of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, has estimated expenditures of $9.5 million in calendar 1987, with a projected deficit of $4.5 million.

There has been talk that the Center will eventually have to seek government funds, and Frank Hodsoll, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, was the second person that Segerstrom welcomed after naming the governor.

Ends Long Cultural Commute

The building is expected to end a commute to culture for thousands of arts lovers in Orange County, who are estimated to account for about 30% of the audience at the Los Angeles Music Center.


“We’re no longer a cultural suburb of Los Angeles,” said Jim Rodgers, a real estate developer who said he gave $100,000 to the building. “We’re going to go a little softer now on our trips up to the Los Angeles Music Center. We’ve got our own center now.”

If the Center’s scheduled offerings have not been universally praised as daring, the names are certainly recognizable: Leontyne Price for a concert and a recital later this week, followed in the 1986-1987 season by a list that features violinist Isaac Stern, the Chicago Symphony, cellist Janos Starker, the Joffrey Ballet, the New York City Ballet and the New York City Opera. There will be short visits by musical comedy productions on tour.

A Cultural Disneyland?

But only time will answer the biggest question about the Center: Will it become a kind of cultural Disneyland, an elegant booking barn for traveling road shows? Or will it seek to cultivate local arts groups that have been clamoring for such a facility for years? Several nascent performing organizations in Orange County--the Pacific Symphony of Orange County, the new Pacific Opera and others--will have a chance to prove their ticket-selling potential in the hall.


The Center may come to dominate the county’s arts landscape, but it is only part of a gradual cultural awakening for the area. In Newport Beach, there is the Newport Harbor Art Museum, known for intelligent, if not huge, shows of contemporary art. And the South Coast Repertory has premiered important plays that have gone on to recognition in New York and elsewhere.

Making a case for the Center’s future prospects, its supporters point out that Orange County, carved off from Los Angeles in 1889, has grown to have a population that is the third largest county in California and the seventh largest in the United States. Once a drowsy, pastoral place of orange groves, bean fields and cows, it is now a bustling community that boasts, among other things, a major league baseball team, the Angels, winners of this year’s American League West division pennant, and the NFL’s Rams.

With 26 incorporated cities, the county has a current population of 2,145,706, which is expected to reach 2,306,700 by 1990 and 2,831,100 by 2010, according to federal and county statistics. Median family income has climbed from $26,090 in 1980 to $42,000 in 1986, according to federal figures and the Center for Economic Research at Chapman College, in the City of Orange. These demographics and the presence of an educated population increasingly hungry for the arts have fostered the need for the Center.

The Times drew a depressingly bleak picture of the area’s cultural prospects in a 1973 report that “virtually no resources are directed toward the performing arts. An accepted barometer of an area’s cultural status is its commitment to the live performing arts. . . . In Orange County, the reading is definitely low.”


Monday night showed how far the county has come in the past 13 years, and even if a mere building is not a predictor of how far it can go, the mood for the Center’s opening was not analytical, but celebratory.

Additional opening night coverage in Part II.