Of sound and vision

Times Staff Writer

WHEN the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall opened in the middle of September, it made, I thought, a good first impression. But first impressions can deceive. After only two months, the bloom is already starting to fade.

I still think that it is essentially a fine space and that it should contribute significantly to the cultural life of Orange County. But mistakes were made in Segerstrom’s planning, and they continue to be made in its operation, which has not gone smoothly. As yet, the hall, seen as a plaything of the rich, has not been as fully embraced by the community as it might be.

Expectations were never high for this 2,000-seat, $237.5-million addition to the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Forty miles up the freeways stands the Walt Disney Concert Hall, a masterpiece of architecture and acoustics and home to an outstanding and enlightened orchestra. Nothing can compete with Disney; wisely, OCPAC didn’t try when it finally chose to build a dedicated concert hall across from its original Segerstrom Hall, an all-purpose 3,000-seat venue that will now serve opera, dance and musical theater.

But by opening night, architect Cesar Pelli’s curvaceous corporate glass cladding, his slightly tacky lobby and busy interior had won few kudos for the new hall from architecture critics. And Russell Johnson’s acoustical design had been a worry from the start.

The American acoustician’s trademark is flexibility. On the sides of the new Segerstrom’s interior, from the orchestra section all the way up to the top balcony, are rows of large doors that open to reveal sound chambers illuminated sky blue. When fully opened they change the reverberant qualities of the space. Over the stage are movable cantilevered canopies that alter the ways in which sound is directed.


With the help of computerized controls, good ears, plenty of time and considerable experience, ideal settings can be found for different kinds of music. But typically, ensembles are content to find a sweet spot and stick with it (which Johnson detractors say should have been the acoustician’s job in the first place). The Philadelphia orchestra spent over a year of expensive and frustrating trial and error before it was happy with Johnson’s 2001 Verizon Hall.

The Pacific Symphony, for which the hall was at least in part built, seems to have struggled with this process less than most. I attended a rehearsal in the hall two weeks before it opened and from the downstairs orchestra seats (the balconies were still hard-hat zones) the sound was clear, immediate and had some warmth.

At the two Pacific Symphony opening night concerts, the results were slightly less pleasing. The sound chamber doors were opened in a different configuration. The canopies had moved as well.

An audience absorbs sound. Who knows? This glamorous crowd displayed so many jewels that the hard stones may have also scattered sound waves erratically. Or maybe there wasn’t enough humidity in the atmosphere. Or the stars weren’t properly aligned.

But no one expects perfection on opening night. Under the best circumstances, an orchestra needs a while to learn its space. As fresh-cut wood matures, it takes on new reflective and absorptive qualities. Stucco settles and changes. The important thing at the opening was that the results were still, for the most part, pleasing. My theory is that if anything sounds good, everything should ultimately sound good, and I expect Segerstrom to help prove it.

The seams begin to show

LEAVING acoustician-approved areas, though, one discovers discrepancies. Unlike Disney -- where there are no boxes or exclusive sections but rather groupings of vineyard-like areas surrounding the stage -- Segerstrom is built on the old-fashioned model of several tiers in a horseshoe shape. On the first tier are boxes for the elite. At some concerts they are priced substantially higher than orchestra seats. They shield socialites from the hoi polloi. And they provide the most immediate and best balanced sound, as long as you are not placed too close to the stage.

The cheapest seats, up high, offer impressive boom when the brass blares and drums are beaten, suggesting the sound waves gain energy as they rise. Still, Segerstrom gives with one hand and takes with the other. In this tall building, musicians onstage are but tiny specks to those on the top tiers. If you are unlucky enough to be seated on the sides of the top balcony, much of the orchestra disappears altogether. How is it possible that a hall with only 2,000 seats, just slightly more than an ideal number, can have sections where the visibility is severely limited? How is it possible that Disney Hall, about 200 seats larger, feels more intimate?

The worst seats I’ve sat in, though, are in the front section of the orchestra, where even a tall person will have to crane his or her head and where the sound seems to shoot right over said craned head. The bass, which rises, doesn’t fall back again.

Segerstrom’s strong implication of class structure is magnified in many ways. Off the lobby is a just-opened, expensive Pinot restaurant, which can now compete with the expensive Pinot Provence a short walk away or the exclusive private restaurant across from the first Segerstrom Hall. Let the proles traipse to South Coast Plaza. And if they don’t want to take the out-of-the-way bridge (and most don’t), they can attempt to maneuver pedestrian-unfriendly streets where sidewalks mysteriously disappear. Actually, there is no mystery. The obvious anti-urbanism seems one more part of the attempt to keep OCPAC exclusive.

This kind of exclusivity has translated to the programming at OCPAC as well. The centerpiece of the opening festivities was a 17-day festival of opera, symphonies and ballet imported from the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia. And the centerpiece of that festival was the American premiere of its production of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, the first major “Ring” cycle in Southern California.

Heaven only knows how much this trophy “Ring,” along with four performances of Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” and a handful of Shostakovich symphonies (as well a several evenings of ballet) cost the Center. The “Ring” -- which had some great moments thanks to Valery Gergiev’s conducting and interesting, if uneven, Russian singers -- did not have a stage director or adequate rehearsal and was mainly a muddle. Moreover, it was staged in the awful old Segerstrom.

Shostakovich symphonies were grippingly conducted by Gergiev in the new hall, which did a fine job of conveying the powerfully gritty sound of the Kirov Orchestra. But Shostakovich proved too much for Orange County audiences, which were not able to fill the hall, open for barely a month and featuring one of the biggest names in the business on the podium. Empty seats, if not so many, were also apparent at recent New York Philharmonic appearances.

When that happens, something is wrong. And what is wrong is that prices are too high (a $200 top for the Kirov) and that there is not enough culturally curious elite in Orange County to support an elite showplace.

Inspiration at the helm

THERE is, in fact, vision at OCPAC, and the time has come for those with it to be given the run of the place. Carl St.Clair, music director of the Pacific Symphony, showed admirable ambition in commissioning important new pieces for the two opening concerts. William Bolcom’s “Canciones de Lorca,” a cycle of new orchestral songs to Lorca texts written for Placido Domingo, proved an immediate sensation. Philip Glass’ “The Passion of Ramakrishna” pleads with the well-off to devote themselves to social good.

With the input of advisor Joseph Horowitz, St.Clair has fashioned strong, provocative, informative festivals of Russian, Hungarian, American and Mexican music. How much better it would have been to invest money that went to the Kirov in upgrading the Pacific Symphony. Although it is California’s third-largest orchestra, it is not yet full time and is a far-distant third from the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony.

John DeMain, the artistic director of Opera Pacific, has played a significant role in the history of American opera, especially in his years as music director for the Houston Opera. In Houston, he conducted the world premiere of “Nixon in China.” But while OCPAC can afford to schlep a flawed “Ring” from Russia, it won’t cough up money to produce a major American opera about a native Orange County son.

Dean Corey, who heads the Philharmonic Society, an organization that presents touring orchestras and musicians at OCPAC and UC Irvine, has for the last several years worked hard to make Orange County more adventurous. He has succeeded to some extent. But his Eclectic Orange Festival never has nearly enough money to present the kinds of groundbreaking work he champions, work that could bring in new audiences and help put the region on the artistic map.

My proposal is to put the artistic direction of OCPAC entirely in the hands of St.Clair, DeMain and Corey. Fill those hands with the kind of dollars that were frittered on Russians. Make OCPAC uniquely of its community.

Then change the bloody, confusing name of the hall. Two Segerstrom halls is one too many.