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Only sound is ticking of the clock

OCPAC's new home faces a debut with little time for fine-tuning.

July 25, 2006|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

The Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center is slated to open Sept. 15, but builders are racing to finish at least a month earlier -- the leeway the hall needs to have a fighting chance of sounding right in its debut.

Its resident orchestra, the Pacific Symphony, needs the time to become acclimated to the 2,000-seat venue in Costa Mesa, which is considerably more intimate and acoustically sensitive than its previous home of nearly 20 years, the 3,000-seat Segerstrom Hall across the street.

As it stood last week, the Pacific Symphony will have its first rehearsal in the new hall on Aug. 11, according to project director Darrell Waters, vice president of contractor Fluor Enterprises.

Still, that's several months shy of the amount of time acoustician Russell Johnson suggested was needed when he presented his design model in Costa Mesa along with architect Cesar Pelli in October 2002. It typically takes "three full months to get bugs ironed out," the acoustician said then. "Many cities plan for a full 12 months."

If construction continues as planned, OCPAC will have to make do with a lot less leeway. "It is shorter than everybody had hoped for at the beginning," Pelli said last week, "but still satisfactory."

Johnson is familiar with what a fiasco it can be if a concert hall is merely on time. He was there for the December 2000 debut of Verizon Hall in Philadelphia's Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, for which he also served as acoustician. That event stands as a model of how not to roll out a swanky new destination for music lovers.

With the Rafael Vinoly-designed building unfinished and over budget and the esteemed Philadelphia Orchestra under-rehearsed in its new digs, Verizon opened on schedule -- then got slagged for lifeless and indistinct sound. Critics who returned months later, after the hall had been finished and Johnson was belatedly able to make the needed adjustments, noted a vast improvement over opening night.

But the bad first impression lingered.

In Johnson's concept for the Orange County hall -- as opposed to the more typical one-size-fits-all acoustic design of Walt Disney Concert Hall and many others -- a symphony hall's sound characteristics can be adjusted to suit the style and dynamics of the music being performed. That's done by opening, shutting or leaving ajar more than 100 massive concrete doors that separate the auditorium from adjoining hallways which double as "reverberation chambers," and by raising or lowering a three-piece sound-reflecting canopy above the stage.

Pacific Symphony President John Forsyte said he's confident that 35 days will be enough. "We had never anticipated any more time," he said. "Our goal over this one month is to arrive at a setting as quickly as possible that we can live with," then experiment and fine-tune over the rest of the orchestra's season.

Damian Doria, the principal acoustician on the project for Johnson's firm, Artec Consultants, says the pace of construction will leave enough time to make Segerstrom Concert Hall sing as it's supposed to. Over the past 18 to 20 months, he said, Artec has been testing and monitoring things seemingly unrelated to acoustics -- wiring, water pipes, electrical lifts for the stage -- that can inject noise into the hall and impact its sound. Having taken care of those, he says, the three months needed "if you go in cold" won't be necessary.

Humans aren't as easy to adjust as reverberation chambers and acoustical canopies, Doria says, so the Pacific Symphony may indeed need a half-year after opening night to feel fully at home.

"Everything's going to be working the way we expect it to work," Doria said. "It'll be a fair judgment at the opening."

For Fluor, a $13.2-billion-a-year construction giant known for huge industrial projects, the concert hall has called for a delicate touch. Early on, construction of the new hall suffered numerous setbacks and delays.

In order to drive the concert hall's 1,492 concrete support pilings 50 feet into the ground, Fluor and its subcontractors first had to pump out and filter pollutants from a veritable underground reservoir -- a job that took 15 months at 700,000 gallons per day.

When the water underground had been dealt with, water from the sky began to fall. The second year of construction, 2004-2005, brought about 25.2 inches of rain, almost double the annual norm. Waters figures the project was set back six weeks waiting out downpours.

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