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Glamorous Opening For Orange County Center

October 01, 1986|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Times Music Critic

Beginnings are never easy.

It takes a while to tune a concert hall. Even a magnificent-looking one like Segerstrom Hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

It takes a while for a conductor and an orchestra to become acquainted with the inherent acoustical quirks. It takes a while for the musicians to learn how to listen to one another in strange surroundings, to gauge and balance their sonic output.

Under the circumstances, it might be wise to regard the gala opening concert Monday night as something akin to a very fancy rehearsal.

At first hearing, Segerstrom did not quite turn out to be the acoustical marvel predicted by the local drum-beaters. The auditorium is undeniably inventive in its asymmetrical design, even daring. It can boast a remarkable aura of intimacy, despite its generous 3,000-seat capacity. The physical appointments, for the most part, suit comfort as well as luxury.

But never mind all that. The sound is the thing. Monday night it was an inconclusive thing.

If one can judge on the basis of still-skimpy evidence, the hall seems to favor the brass and percussion at the expense of the strings and winds. It also seems to cope better with small sounds than big ones.

One doesn't know how much to blame the house, of course, and how much the music makers.

There is no question that the imbalances eventually can be corrected. The house is live and resonant. The ambiance is warm. The potential for clarity and presence seems strong. Various minute adjustments of the open-stage apparatus are not just feasible but easy.

The awful phantom of the historical Lincoln Center fiasco has been kept safely at bay. One must be thankful. Still, some doubts must linger.

The inaugural concert began with presumably obligatory speeches. Super-elegant first-nighters, who had paid as much as $2,000 per ticket, endured 15 minutes of welcoming rhetoric and self-congratulation.

The masses dutifully applauded a gushing message from Beverly Sills. Then they applauded a supportive telegram from President Reagan--a President who has spent little but words in support of the fine arts in the United States.

They also applauded three speakers who lauded assorted fund-raisers but deemed the names of the responsible architect and acousticians unworthy of mention.

So much for aesthetic priorities.

Later, they applauded each movement of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony as played by a rather ragged Los Angeles Philharmonic under a rather frenetic Zubin Mehta.

So much for aesthetic sophistication.

The concert began with none less than Leontyne Price singing the national anthem. The beloved soprano's lower tones emerged unusually thin and foggy, even by her own current thin-and-foggy standards. Her high notes boomed impressively.

William Kraft's "Of Ceremonies, Pageants and Celebrations" capitalized at the outset on sweet bells and drones ringing with telling immediacy from various portions of the hall. The delicate timbres eventually flirted with rugged outbursts from the big orchestra on the stage, finally fusing in thunderous climaxes.

The thunder proved more noteworthy, alas, for drama than for textural definition.

Colorful and deftly constructed, Kraft's seven-minute overture turned out to be a neat little, tight little, painless little piece d'occasion.

Aaron Copland's inevitable ode to popular Americana, "Lincoln Portrait," inspired generalized bombast from the orchestra. James Whitmore recited the text with tough, homespun accents. Unfortunately, the accents were distorted by overzealous microphones.

After intermission, Mehta suggested that his perspective of the heroic Beethoven ethos has changed little since he abandoned Los Angeles for New York in 1978. This was a tough, brisk, sometimes shrill and sometimes even brutal Ninth Symphony.

It was a Ninth that benefited from pervasive force and some visceral excitement in the last movement. But it lacked the wonted majesty, poetry and sensitivity.

The strong solo quartet, stationed virtually in the audience's lap, sounded bright and urgent. Samuel Ramey intoned the invocation with heroic basso fervor. William Johns didn't sound particularly mellifluous in the tenor solo, but he did manage the difficult ascending lines with stentorian ease.

Benita Valente brought welcome finesse if little weight to the soprano part.

Katherine Ciesinski did all that can be done with the ungrateful duties allotted the mezzo-soprano.

Situated on risers at the rear of the stage, 150 singers culled from the Master Chorale of Orange County and the Pacific Chorale sang with fervor and ample thrust. Despite contrary speculation, a larger chorus probably would be superfluous in a challenge such as this. In fact, a larger chorus might create balance problems.

The Orange County choirs did encounter occasional strain and tightness, especially in the treacherous endurance contest visited upon the sopranos. One has often said the same, however, when far more celebrated ensembles ventured the same music.

In general, the Ninth served as a nervous finale for a nervous evening. Blame the problems on the excitement inherent in the occasion. Blame it on inexperience, on a no-longer-familiar conductor, on an orchestra still recovering from the rigors of Hollywood Bowl, on Beethoven. Blame it on the new hall.

Beginnings are never easy.

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