Amid fireworks and a glorious light show, aggressive partying with blaring rock music, conspicuous consumption and various other forms of contemporary pomp and circumstance, Orange County made its bid last weekend to keep up with the Joneses. It inaugurated the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall addition to the Orange County Performing Arts Center, and thus Costa Mesa joins three other North American cities (Toronto, Miami and Nashville) this month in opening a new concert hall, opera house or both.
The gala opening concerts with the Pacific Symphony conducted by Carl St.Clair on Friday and Saturday nights offered amateur sociologists a field day in a former lima bean field that is now some of the most sterling real estate in the country. Armani, Gucci and Prada, along with all the pretty people who shop at South Coast Plaza, are but a hop, skip and jump away. Mercedes-Benz set up shop at the hall’s valet parking area, hoping to a sell a $367,000 Maybach or two to gala-goers cooling their Jimmy Choo heels and checking their Rolexes as they waited for their Rollses. Helped by Hollywood, O.C. has been turned, for too much of the world, into a vision of enviable vacuity.
But don’t believe everything you see on television. The new Segerstrom Hall stands across the way from the old multipurpose 3,000-seat Segerstrom Hall, built 20 years ago and a monstrosity, and it stands for the region’s genuine quest for cultural sophistication and significance.
The new $200-million, 2,000-seat venue intended purely as a concert hall entered the world in the heat of captivating new William Bolcom songs set to lusty Lorca poems magnificently sung by Placido Domingo on Friday night. It entered the world offering up the ascetic aesthetic of a 19th century Hindu mystic who taught his followers to rise above the dark forces of sensual desire and Maybach-desire. Sri Ramakrishna was the subject of a spiritually high-minded, grandly scaled new work for chorus and orchestra by Philip Glass on Saturday night.
And it entered the world with a mesmerizing “Glowing Wall,” a 15-by-65-foot mist-shrouded video installation by Robert Wilson that faces Richard Serra’s massive, arresting new sculpture, “Connector,” also commissioned for the plaza. Take into account the Noguchi sculpture garden around the corner, and suddenly Segerstrom is surrounded by extraordinary, meaningful modern public art that utterly transforms an ungainly corporate setting.
Overlooking a few reservations, I like the second Segerstrom.
I like the way it feels. The light and airy interior is hospitable, the silver organ pipes (the instrument itself is still a year away from installation) intriguing. Architect Cesar Pelli’s undulating glass exterior has a welcome, outdoorsy transparency. I like the firm, upright seats.
I like the way I imagine Segerstrom will sound once it finds its bearings. The acoustic design is by Artec Consultants Inc., which is headed by Russell Johnson. The New York-based firm has worked on a number of the most important modern concert halls around the country and the world, but the 82-year-old Johnson remains controversial for his faith in adjustable settings.
Typical of an Artec model, the sides of Segerstrom’s interior are lined with large motorized doors that open up to sound chambers. Three large reflectors over the stage are movable. A system of sound-absorbing cloths can be deployed. Reverberation can be controlled. The hall can be made to sound more alive or muffled. But the process is complex. Most orchestras in Johnson halls want to find a setting they like, then learn to live with it. But that can take a year or two.
I heard both gala concerts from the same, acoustician-approved seat in the orchestra. During one rehearsal I attended in a nearly empty hall, I moved around the orchestra but have yet to hear what it sounds like from the four balconies or from the seats behind the stage. At the rehearsal, the sound chambers doors were only half-open; at the concerts they were closed to only a crack downstairs, wider upstairs.
Clearly, this is not the time for anything but preliminary acoustical assessment, but eventually this will likely become one of Johnson’s best halls.
Friday night the Pacific Symphony and Pacific Chorale began the program with “The Promise of Living” from Copland’s “The Tender Land,” full of fine sentiments about the promise of living and growing and working together. It came out like preaching, very loud, coarse, overblown, the chorus blaring.
But Bolcom’s “Conciones de Lorca” revealed the innate clarity of Johnson’s sound. Bolcom was full of small inspirations for individual instruments, and the textures came out honest and alluring. Domingo, singing with thrilling gusto if not a huge amount of nuance, sounded immediate. The bass is not deep thus far in this hall, but it is real.
Friday’s second half was devoted to Mahler’s First Symphony. St.Clair led a carefully controlled performance, but the orchestra played nervously, as if not used to being so nakedly exposed but still wanting to overindulge in the reverberance.
For Saturday’s program, Artec deployed more sound-absorbing fabric, slightly reducing the reverberation. Beethoven’s Violin Concerto opened the program. Midori was the soloist, playing with impressive effortlessness, but so effortless as to be a tad boring. St.Clair kept a smallish orchestra discrete. The sound from my seat satisfyingly revealed balances and inner lines. I think that was the first time I ever heard the orchestra’s violas, which were always lost in the bigger Segerstrom.
Glass’ “The Passion of Ramakrishna,” a co-commission with the Nashville Symphony, required the involvement of Pacific Chorale and three vocal soloists (Cynthia Haymon-Coleman, baritone Christopheren Nomura and bass-baritone Nathan Berg). It is a moving work celebrating the last days of the saint and his saintly wife. The musical style breaks little new ground for Glass, except for the glorious Handelian ending. But the composer’s style ideally fits the devotional text, and St.Clair approached the 45-minute score with irresistible enthusiasm. The chorus blared unintelligibly.
Open a new hall, and stuff happens. Turning on the Wilson installation and party lights during the last movement of the Mahler on Friday caused a power surge arrester to rumble ominously and ruin the soft passages.
Open a new hall, and stuff doesn’t happen. The concerts were broadcast live locally on KUSC and K-MOZART but not streamed over the Internet for the rest of the world. Greedy orchestra musicians, heedless of Ramakrishna’s message, wouldn’t permit it.