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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)

To complement the Pelli building, there is a new Richard Serra sculpture sitting in its front yard -- the kind of brutal, rusting art that culturally backward American cities love to run out of town. The opening-night gala, and another concert on Saturday, included two major musical commissions (including a Philip Glass paean to Ramakrishna). Guests were entertained after the concert with a video show by avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson.

And Pelli's building looks decidedly space-age when compared with the new concert hall in Nashville, which with its classical facade and boxy shape looks like an imitation of the U.S. Treasury on the back of the $10 bill. Orange County isn't trying to build some retrograde 19th-century fantasy of cultural life. The organizers are committed to a modern aesthetic, albeit one that's about a generation out of date.

But there is an important difference in the new inferiority complex of the suburbs that distinguishes it from the old one you saw in operation in American cities in the late 19th century. Orange County is building new cultural institutions because traffic has choked off its access to old ones. Once seen as a bedroom community for Los Angeles, the O.C. is now severed from its former lodestar, especially during those heavy-volume hours that precede early evening curtain times. With insufferable traffic came a turning in upon itself, culturally and emotionally. The county was no longer pendant to a metropolitan center, and the identity of its residents required new definition. Voila , the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

Is it too much of a stretch to say that the new Pelli concert hall, with its fluid lines and transparent facade, is a building engendered by and aesthetically in reaction to highway congestion? The hall, which its proponents (including the Pacific Symphony's conductor, St. Clair) dub "inviting," is essentially a cultural fantasy: Park your car, come into my glass house, and experience music -- motion in sound. Music offers that feeling of euphoria you so rarely get on the highway: freedom and speed, and using a lot less gasoline. It's a sanctuary inside which everything flows. By contrast, the Gehry hall, despite its dramatic exuberance, exudes a kind of Apollonian calm. Gehry even has the audacity to put windows in the concert space, a very rare example of natural light in an American symphonic venue, one that suggests the architect sees music as a confident portal on the world, not a refuge from it.

Up in L.A., the new concert hall has helped define the orchestra's identity for a new century. Under the enlightened leadership of the Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, the L.A. Philharmonic is rededicating itself to serious music and contemporary composition. The building's magnetism, its fans believe, has helped audiences overcome their natural reluctance to explore challenging music.

"It allowed us to reinvent ourselves," says Deborah Borda, the orchestra's CEO.

Reinvention is the buzzword of our aging cultural infrastructure. In Orange County, they're not talking reinvention but the language of we-try-harder cultural aspiration. The foundational idea that a museum and a concert hall can turn a bean field into a city is still in operation.

But they're not building from scratch. As suburban areas like Orange County become increasingly urban (Orange County now has 3 million people), it will be fascinating to see what they retain from their older models, and what they scrap. One interesting fact that may not seem to have much to do with architecture is worth noting: The Pacific Symphony is a "per service" orchestra, which means that unlike most major American orchestras, its players are not employed full time, and the orchestra doesn't guarantee them a 52-week season.

That means two things: They are not always as polished as a full-time group (evident on Friday in a sloppy performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 1), yet the institution is much more financially nimble. As American culture continues to fragment, some large cultural institutions with big endowments (the L.A. Philharmonic has $137 million in the bank) will survive above the economic turbulence. Others will find it impossible to continue paying top salaries to a hundred-odd musicians year-round, and either retool or go out of business. So while it's at first disconcerting to see a part-time orchestra resident in a $200 million concert hall, maybe this is the shape of things to come.

Outside major metropolitan areas with established cultural institutions, new ones built on more provisional models will fill the void. So to represent both the energy and the transitory nature of this suburban cultural life, perhaps it makes sense to build a concert hall with an acre of flowing glass on its facade.

Yes, Pelli's buildings are corporate and this one is no exception. But it is also the home of a new kind of orchestra, much more directly responsive to the vagaries of the music market. You have the sense that if the Pacific Symphony ever went belly-up, the Orange County Performing Arts Center would just find a new tenant, tweak the lease and put on a different show. Pelli's concert hall captures the energy and brusque pragmatism of art in the age of unsentimental capitalism.

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