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Orange County, California Grows Up as a Cultural Center


Orange County, California, is known for surfing, swimming and its famous Disneyland theme park, but the suburban region south of Los Angeles is also becoming a cultural center. A new Orange County concert hall opened this month. It rivals the best in the United States, and is attracting world-class talent.

This was once a farming area, then a bedroom community for the city of Los Angeles, where workers in manufacturing and the aerospace industry could buy cheap tract homes. Wealthier families settled on the hillsides.

In 1955, Orange County became a tourist center, as cartoonist Walt Disney opened his famous theme park.

Before long, Orange County's palm-lined beaches were known around the world for their swimming and surfing, and movies like Orange County poked fun at the local lifestyle.

"I was just another Orange County surfer, carving waves, playing volleyball. But there's more to life than extreme sports and partying."

Orange County has moved beyond its laid-back image. In 1965, a branch of the University of California opened in the Orange County city of Irvine, and the area has become a high tech and automotive design center.

Now, local leaders say it is a cultural destination. The newly expanded Orange County Performing Arts Center includes a 2,000-seat concert hall and smaller 500-seat theater, to supplement two existing venues.

Henry Segerstrom, whose family made a fortune growing lima beams, built one of the country's largest shopping malls in Orange County. He donated land for the new hall and gave $40 million toward its cost. The hall is named after Segerstrom and his late wife, Renee.

The 83-year-old developer was born in Orange County when it was home to fewer than 200,000 people.

"Our population base now is 20 times that," said Henry Segerstrom. "We're at three million people. And we're a high technology center in the world and a higher education center. So we have now matured in one more step. With the opening of the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, we've become a cultural center in America and internationally."

Terrence Dwyer, president of the performing arts center, says the new multi-tiered theater is itself a work of art, and an acoustic wonder.

"It's actually a tunable hall," said Terrence Dwyer. "There are over 100 doors on every level throughout the hall that are opened and closed and adjusted to the needs of each particular piece of music. It's really an amazing musical instrument in and of itself."

John Alexander directs and conducts the Pacific Chorale, the 170-member vocal group that performs at the center.

"We have performed in every hall in Southern California, as well as Carnegie Hall and Chicago Symphony Hall and in New York at Lincoln Center," noted John Alexander. "This is our favorite place. After two weeks of dealing with acoustics, we can hear beautifully in this hall. We are just thrilled. It's an extraordinary place."

Cesar Pelli, an Argentinian-born American architect, designed the new addition, working with the noted acoustic designer Russell Johnson. Pelli's fa├žade of undulating glass gives the hall a distinctive appearance.

As he sat onstage hours before the opening performance, he spoke about the design of the new building.

"I would not know how to describe it for somebody who has not seen it in some images, but I will say that the building is welcoming, delightful, uplifting - that's very important to me," said Cesar Pelli. "This will prepare you for the magic that is a great concert, in a very intimate way, with other fellow citizens, with friends. And you will be listening to music being created right there.

Performances the opening weekend featured tenor Placido Domingo and the violinist Midori.

The expanded performing arts center will also feature opera, ballet and Broadway shows, all in the heart of Orange County.