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A star-studded opening for the Valley Performing Arts Center

Among the performers at the gala on the Cal State Northridge campus: Calista Flockhart, Cheech Marin and Cuban jazz musician Arturo Sandoval.

January 31, 2011|By David Ng, Los Angeles Times

Ten years and $125 million in the making, the Valley Performing Arts Center officially became a reality Saturday night in a celebration that brought together Hollywood celebrities with Los Angeles city and county leaders to inaugurate the building on the campus of Cal State Northridge.

The center's 1,700-seat main hall — featuring four plush levels encased in undulating wood panels — is the largest in the San Fernando Valley and is intended to attract top-notch performers to a region of Southern California whose reputation has tended to rest on such less-exalted forms of entertainment, as mall culture and the adult film industry.

The first season at the Arts Center, set to begin this Saturday (with singers Shawn Colvin and Loudon Wainwright III), features performers spanning the spectrum from classical music to jazz to Broadway. Saturday's gala concert reflected that diversity, offering a sampler platter of the arts, spiced with star appearances.

Calista Flockhart, accompanied by husband Harrison Ford, served as one of the evening's many presenters. The celebration included performances by Tyne Daly and Davis Gaines, singing selections from "Gypsy" and "The Phantom of the Opera," respectively; dancers Gillian Murphy and Jose Manuel Carreno from the American Ballet Theatre; and Cuban jazz musician Arturo Sandoval, accompanied on the bongos by actor Andy Garcia.

A number of the evening's performers grew up in the Valley or count themselves as Cal State Northridge alumni. Cheech Marin, who delivered a comedy and song routine, attended the school in the late '60s when it was San Fernando Valley State College. "I did a lot of performing arts while I was here, especially in bands," Marin said during the after-party, which was held nearby on campus. "They used to put on a lot of shows, but they were always in the gym, which wasn't great acoustically."

Nancy Cartwright, who provides the voice of Bart Simpson on Fox's "The Simpsons," has been a Valley resident since the '80s, and is the honorary mayor of the North San Fernando Valley. "A facility of this size has the potential to change the community," she said. "I'm enormously proud to live here."

Longtime Valley resident Beau Bridges attended the concert but did not appear onstage. "This has a lot of meaning for our community," he said. "It's the best we have now — and it's not far from my house."

During the concert, Monica Mancini performed songs written by her father, Henry, and recalled growing up in Northridge at a time when the community still had a fair number of orange groves. Soprano Carol Vaness dedicated her performance of "Vissi d'arte" from Puccini's "Tosca" to her Cal State Northridge music professor David Scott.

Other presenters for the evening included Eric Stoltz, Benjamin Bratt, Jane Kaczmarek, Noah Wyle, Steven Weber, Keith David and Doris Roberts.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa attended the celebration, greeting patrons and trading music tips with Sandoval and Mancini. Villaraigosa said that for the last three years, some Los Angeles leaders have been trying to do away with the city's Department of Cultural Affairs. "We have to find ways to support the arts, including in our schools and universities," he said.

Jolene Koester, president of Cal State Northridge, described the Valley Performing Arts Center as "a miracle" but added that $17 million still needed to be raised to meet the university's $50-million fundraising goal.

With a $125-million price tag, the building represents a combination of public and private investment. State bonds provided approximately half the tab, while private donations accounted for a large portion. In addition, L.A. County Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky and Michael Antonovich put in $2 million and $500,000, respectively, from their discretionary funds. Yaroslavsky described the building as "long overdue" and added that it would help bring jobs and other forms of investment into the Northridge area. "The arts are a great economic generator," he said.

In late 2008, construction on the center came to a halt because of a state budget impasse, but building resumed the following March after then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger lifted the state moratorium on public works projects.

On Saturday, tuxedoed attendees mingled in the building's atrium, enclosed in floor-to-ceiling glass walls that allow views to the west and north. The steel-framed building, designed by the Minneapolis architecture firm of Hammel, Green and Abrahamson, also features smaller performance and rehearsal spaces.

Kara Hill, the lead architect on the project, said the center was designed to be "extroverted," with a structural and spiritual connection to the rest of the campus. "Performance halls can often be pushed to the side of a campus," Hill said. "We wanted the building to be open ... so that people can see out and can be seen."

The acoustics of the main hall were designed to be adjustable — via movable panels and other devices — to accommodate the variety of artists expected to appear there. Saxophonist Dave Koz, who grew up in nearby Tarzana and who performed at the gala, described the hall's acoustics as "beautiful... crystal-clear and pure-tone."

Saturday's concert was not the first in the building. In November, the Moscow State Symphony, under music director Pavel Kogan, played two invitation-only concerts that were seen as a test run for the facility.

Organizers said they hope to ramp up programming to a level where there is one major artist event per week. They said the center is about 85% booked for the 2011-12 season, which begins in the fall.

david.ng@latimes.com

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