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CREATING A CENTER : The Tenant Tenet

September 21, 1986|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Martin Bernheimer is The Times' music critic. FO

Who said Orange County was conservative? If conservative forces were to build an arts center, conventional wisdom would dictate an old-fashioned concert hall replete with ornate loges for conspicuous cultural consumption, glitzy chandeliers for portentous if not pretentious illumination, and neat rows of seats in class-conscious balconies suspended over a square and massive orchestra space. The Orange County Performing Arts Center is nothing like that. Thank goodness.

It is an inviting, boldly modern auditorium--inventive in its unorthodox interior design, generous in its sight lines, democratic in its asymmetrical seating configuration, and, despite a 3,000-seat capacity, extraordinarily intimate in its atmosphere.

Some experts may be disappointed by conditions on and around the stage. There isn't much wing space. Facilities for setting up and moving scenery are primitive. Storage resources are limited. There is no turntable. Audiences at operas and ballets may have to endure long intermissions.

Still, the stage is big. The playing area is flexible. The jagged proscenium is spacious. Opportunities for creative lighting effects are vast. And--good news for dancers--the floor seems to have plenty of spring.

Imaginative stage directors and designers have performed miracles in houses far less well-equipped. Conversely, unimaginative directors and designers have created many a dull production in houses blessed with all manner of newfangled technological wondertoys.

The ultimate test of the new facility will involve not the house itself but what Orange County chooses to put in it.

The list of attractions for the inaugural season is impressive--especially if one happens to be easily impressed by safe and famous names.

At the gala opening, Zubin Mehta, everybody's favorite Parsee conductor, will return temporarily to the local band he abandoned in favor of Fun City. Andre Previn, Kurt Sanderling and Esa-Pekka Salonen will man the Los Angeles Philharmonic podium in subsequent concerts. No one, alas, will woman it.

Symphonic soloists will include such obvious box-office attractions as Isaac Stern, Jean-Pierre Rampal and Leontyne Price. Among the stellar visiting orchestras will be the mighty Chicago Symphony under Sir Georg Solti and the resplendent Cleveland Orchestra under Christoph von Dohnanyi.

The European contingent will include the Orchestre National of France under the strangely overrated Lorin Maazel and the Warsaw Philharmonic under the strangely underrated Kazimierz Kord.

The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra will spend part of its music-directorless season in Orange County. The immediate region will be represented, one hopes with worthy pride, by the ambitious Pacific Symphony under Keith Clark.

Ballet? The vaunted New York City Ballet, an all-too-rare commodity in Southern California, will offer crash courses in posthumous Balanchine. American Ballet Theatre will trot out a thinking-man's (Mikhail Baryshnikov's) "Nutcracker" as a sure-fire pre-Christmas ritual. And on Oct. 12, even Joffrey and Co. will venture the trek from downtown Los Angeles.

Opera? An Orange County venture with Detroit ties promises--ahem--"West Side Story" plus "Boheme" and a touring "Porgy." Beverly Sills and the New York City Opera, tossed unceremoniously out of the downtown Music Center four years ago, bounce back with--ahem--"Candide" plus "Madama Butterfly" and "Carmen."

On paper, it all sounds nice. Comfortable. Easy. Predictable. Possibly just a tad boring.

The Orange County management has repeatedly declared a need for initial caution. It's better, the executive argument goes, to start slowly than to take potentially costly chances.


A counter-argument might insist that the glamorous new hall will be an attraction, all by itself, during the first season. It is possible that audiences will come just to see the socio-architectural miracle, and to be seen.

If that is so, a little more artistic daring might have been in order. If the public will come anyway, why not expose it to something new and exciting? John Crosby did that, with emphatic success, in Santa Fe. He realized that his audience, in the arid wilds of the New Mexico desert, knew almost as little about "Carmen" as it did about "Wozzeck." Therefore he offered both, pretending that Bizet and Berg were equals, that their creations were interchangeable staples.

He didn't cater to presumed timidity. He catered, with smashing success, to assumed sophistication.

It seems strange that, of only six so-called operas on the Orange County agenda, two--"West Side Story" and "Candide"--are really musical comedies, or unreasonable facsimiles thereof. Another--"Porgy"--is a Broadway hybrid.

The "Candide" staging, incidentally, was something of a critical flop at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1982. A previous incarnation of the Houston "Porgy" played to surprisingly empty houses at the Pantages in Hollywood back in 1977.

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