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Orange County Opens Arts Center to Fanfare : $70.7-Million Complex in Costa Mesa Marks Beginning of a New Cultural Era for Residents

Times Staff Writer

Orange County--best known for its beaches, amusement parks and shopping malls--welcomed a new cultural era Monday night with the opening of a $70.7-million Performing Arts Center.

The center, whose sculptural angles and curves loom over a one-time lima bean field in Costa Mesa, 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 had made its Orange County performances in a high school auditorium--filled the hall.

Decade of Ground Work

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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 raising funds from private sources, and three years of construction.

Among the famous in the audience was Gloria Deukmejian, wife of the governor. Gov. George Deukmejian, 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. Then came 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.

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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,” said composer Kraft during intermission. His piece was largely designed 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.

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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,” Segerstrom said of the project that has won him praise as a benefactor of the arts.

The loudest applause greeted the words of President Reagan, conveyed in a telegram 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.”

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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.

Still, the building is expected to end a commute to culture for thousands of arts lovers in Orange County, who account for an estimated 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.”


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