By  on August 16, 2006

IRVINE, Calif. — Southern California's artistic life is getting a shot in the arm.

The 2,000-seat Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall and the 500-seat Samueli Theater — set to open in September — are the newest additions to the cultural hub here known as the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. These facilities, built at a cost of $200 million, along with the existing Segerstrom Hall, South Coast Repertory Theater and an arts plaza with sculptures by artists such as Richard Serra, Isamu Noguchi, Joan Miró and Jean Dubuffet, make up the Orange County Performing Arts Center. The center is one of the largest multivenue arts complexes in the U.S.

The center's founding chairman, Henry Segerstrom, is the owner of the South Coast Plaza shopping center (across the street) and managing partner of C.J. Segerstrom & Sons, and he is as passionate about culture as he is about retailing. Even in 1967, when he built South Coast Plaza on land once occupied by his grandfather's lima bean farms, he envisioned a cultural and residential mix.

"One brings the other," Segerstrom said over lunch in the center's private dining room with architect Cesar Pelli, who designed the undulating glass, steel and limestone concert hall. "People want to live where there is culture and, of course, retail."

The performing arts center has brought a long list of iconic troupes to Orange County, including the American Ballet Theater, the New York City Ballet, the Bolshoi Ballet and the New York City Opera, as well as entertainers such as Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald. It is also home to the Pacific Symphony, Opera Pacific and the Pacific Chorale.

This concert hall season will open with premieres of works by William Bolcom and Philip Glass, and performances by Placido Domingo and Midori.

Segerstrom, 83, and Pelli, 79, are excited about their latest collaboration (Pelli also renovated South Coast Repertory and designed a steel tower in the plaza).

"It's an extraordinary perceptual experience," Pelli said of the concert hall's crystal-clear, curved facade, made from an acre of glass that reaches 87 feet high and is 325 feet wide. "You see and don't see it. It helps connect the inside with the outside."Merging the interior and exterior experiences is Pelli's specialty. The white limestone building and its neutral interior were designed not to compete with whatever audience members are wearing. The only flash of color comes from the hall's 1,800 scarlet velour chairs.

"Most women are very impressed with the chairs because they're handmade in France," said Segerstrom, half jokingly.

Many concertgoers don't realize the science that goes into designing the maple-framed seating. "Having some wood in the front is essential, because it catches sound waves and reflects them back out," Pelli said. "Depending where the seats are, they absorb different levels of sound. The front seats are actually the hardest to engineer."

Among the hall's other special features are the thousands of Swarovski crystal stars in the ceiling, and the enormous silver-leaf canopy over the orchestra. The metal matches the organ pipes. "It's perfect," Pelli said. "As long as it gets finished on time."

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