Southern Orange County getting its own concert hall

What the San Fernando Valley is celebrating this week — the debut of a major performing arts center that figures to be a source of enjoyment and pride for an area that had been short on cultural bragging rights — is on the agenda for southern Orange County too.

In Aliso Viejo, a small but wealthy private school, Soka University of America, has begun the countdown toward October, when it expects the first public notes to sound in its Soka Performing Arts Center. Construction has been completed on the 1,034-seat auditorium that, together with a companion building for arts classrooms, studios and offices, cost $73 million (the Valley Performing Arts Center, at 1,700 seats plus an educational building, cost $125 million).

Soka’s hall places a premium on excellent sound –- hence the commissioning of Yasuhisa Toyota, the acoustician behind Walt Disney Concert Hall. Among its interior features are a stage made of white Alaskan cedar, chosen for its acoustical properties, and seating behind the stage.


The hall can accommodate about 1,200 people for shows in which a smaller performing space is needed and chairs can be set up on the stage; aside from church halls, it will be the only thousand-seater between the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, which is 18 miles to the north, and the California Center for the Arts, 60 miles southeast in Escondido. It was designed by Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Architects; the exterior is of plaster, travertine, aluminum and glass.

Last Wednesday, the Pacific Symphony rehearsed in the hall to kick off the acoustic testing process. Meanwhile, it’s up to David Palmer, hired in December as general manager after 19 years running the performance program at Whittier College’s 403-seat Ruth B. Shannon Center, to book a schedule.

Designed primarily as a concert hall, but also envisioned for dance, plays and musicals — so long as the evening doesn’t require more than minimal set changes — the center will be broken in gradually. Plans call for six to eight “major events” the first season, Palmer said. Then it will build over the two following seasons to an expected full complement of about 25 major headliners per September-to-May season.

Palmer said that jazz and Hawaiian music will be a presence, and that he aims for the programming to reflect Soka’s ideals with a communitarian emphasis in which performers will be asked to give public workshops or engage with local schools. The 438-student institution is affiliated with Soka Gakkai, a Japanese Buddhist movement established in 1930. The university’s website lists its core principles as fostering culture, pacificism and “the creative coexistence of nature and humanity.”

Wendy Harder, spokeswoman for the Aliso Viejo university, said that alumni and supporters of the better-established Soka University of Japan, which opened in 1971 in the Tokyo suburbs, have been key contributors to the American venture, including the performing arts center. Blessed with nearly $500 million in invested assets and cash savings as of mid-2009 (nearly triple the holdings of Chapman University in Orange, the county’s most prominent private school), Soka waives its $26,300 annual tuition for students whose family income is $60,000 or less; Harder said that about half of the members of the last two entering freshman classes have qualified.

Since opening in 2001, the school has grown slowly toward its eventual goal of about 1,000 students, Harder said, and that will be the approach in the arts as well: “Just a few things to get started, and as we see what kind of community support we have for what kinds of program,” more offerings will develop. The first event will be the university’s May 27 graduation ceremony.