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Rhapsody in Orange
A New Player Comes to the O.C.: Cesar Pelli's $200 Million Concert Hall

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 19, 2006

COSTA MESA, Calif.

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.

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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