Rhapsody in Orange

Orange County, Calif., boasts a concert hall that isn't in the same league as nearby Los Angeles's Frank Gehry-designed hall, but it tries to add city savvy to the suburbs.
Orange County, Calif., boasts a concert hall that isn't in the same league as nearby Los Angeles's Frank Gehry-designed hall, but it tries to add city savvy to the suburbs. (Carlos Puma For The Washington Post)
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 19, 2006


A new Cesar Pelli-designed concert hall in Southern California's Orange County opened over the weekend the way big new concert halls generally do. There was a gala concert, with a star soloist (tenor Placido Domingo), a new piece (by composer William Bolcom), fireworks and a glitzy dinner afterward. The building, a $200 million study in curvaceous glass and warm, neutral colors, has been snubbed by some critics who deem it just another conventional exercise in Pelli's depleted style of corporate modernism. But naysayers could not dampen the festive orgy of civic boosterism that attended the opening of the hall -- ballyhooed by a rhetoric of cultural hubris that was deliriously off the charts, and yet oddly old-fashioned.

"The next major cultural center in America," said Carl St. Clair, conductor of the Pacific Symphony, which will be the principal tenant of the 2,000-seat hall.

"The best in the world," said local political leaders.

And then the governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, announced that while he's seen a lot of theaters and opera houses, and he knows from oikestras , "nothing comes close" to the O.C.'s new space. Schwarzenegger, remember, is from Austria, the land of Mozart and legendary music halls, such as Vienna's Musikverein.

This giddy excess of zeal, this manic need to be on the map with something that is the finest in its class, is all rather quaint. Visitors from Los Angeles, the older and more glam neighbor to the north, scoffed with condescension, and there was a good deal of sneering when a glitch in the fireworks display left some red-hot scraps of paper fluttering down on the tony crowd. How bush league ! But what would you expect from Orange County, an insufferably vulgar place of rich old men and trophy wives and idle youth bored with dropping C-notes in the Louis Vuitton shop? It's a wannabe place.

None of which is very fair. The new hall may not break any architectural ground, but it's elegant enough. Pelli, an Argentine-born architect who was once dean of Yale's School of Architecture and is almost 80 years old, has fronted the theater with undulating glass, through which a circular chandelier of hanging lights creates a glittering spiral pattern. It is the sort of glass lobby through which photographers will inevitably shoot the slightly blurry shapes of well-dressed people in motion. The front of the theater, a space conducive to socializing, is focused on a narrow but graceful staircase that gives a nice view of both the interior and exterior as you ascend. Inside the concert hall, Pelli's curves are repeated on the side boxes, and the acoustics (by Russell Johnson) are clear if not particularly flattering. In short, the building serves its purpose without major flaws.

But it's not the Musikverein. And more galling for Orange County, it's definitely not in the same league as the stunning, Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall only 40 miles to the north. Gehry's 2003 creation is a vast sculpture of glimmering metal that has the same effect on pedestrians in the soulless space of downtown L.A. that a castle has on an otherwise run-of-the-mill European city. It both beckons and commands, and creates an irresistible desire to explore its eccentric spaces.

For Pelli, a concert hall isn't sculpture, it's a facility. In his writing he comes across as a genial man, willing to compromise, but fundamentally insistent that buildings honestly reveal the nature of their construction, which in his case is almost always a frame with curtain walls hanging on it. He has spent much of his career making big glass boxes, which almost always feel a little like shiny tents. Compare his bright and efficient terminal at National Airport with Eero Saarinen's dramatic portal at Dulles (Pelli worked under Saarinen for a number of years), and you get a good sense of the aesthetics that govern his work. Saarinen's terminal is monumental and operatic; Pelli's is functional, transparent and a little nondescript. So too the new space in Orange County.

But even if the two buildings are in different leagues, it's worth comparing them, and what they tell us about American cultural life. You might say that Pelli's hall and Gehry's hall are bookends on a continuum of American cultural life. One building is an efficient space for a young orchestra, the other a destination venue for an institution that has effectively worked its way into the top ranks of American musical life. Pelli's hall marks an exuberant stage of naive youth, while Gehry's suggests the self-confidence of a cultural organization that has long outgrown the kind of civic bluster one heard in Orange County.

And even that civic bluster has to be put in a hundred-year perspective. Almost every institution in the rarefied world of American High Culture was built by exactly the same forces that have come together in Orange County's new concert hall: big bucks from the nouveau riche and a huge cultural inferiority complex. That's what built the great institutions of New York and Boston and Philadelphia more than a century ago, and that's what's reappeared, atavistically, in the suburban nowhere of Orange County. One shouldn't scoff, because although there have been several new concert halls built in this country recently (Knight Hall in Miami, which opens next month, and the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, which just opened in Nashville), it's still a small miracle that a community invests hundreds of millions in its orchestra -- perhaps the most inefficient, outmoded and culturally marginal artistic machine still chugging along the great highway of American musical life.

And the surprising thing about the new Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall -- which sits opposite the larger, multi-purpose Segerstrom Hall, built on land and with money donated by Orange County developer Henry Segerstrom, standing where just 40 years ago there were only the lima bean fields of the extended Segerstrom family farm -- is how many contradictory signals it sends off. Orange County is a wealthy, conservative stronghold, but its conservative politics don't translate into conservative aesthetics. And despite the nearby fast food joints and strip malls there is no way that you can condemn the Orange County Performing Arts Center, a plaza of theaters and halls punctuated with public sculpture, as culturally unsophisticated.

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