ORANGE – On a recent warm and sunny weekday morning, a handful of Chapman University students did what university students do the world over in such weather: They lounged upon a vast lawn, this one a recent addition to the campus. Planted with a hybrid, drought-resistant Bermuda and irrigated by a system connected to a weather satellite, the sloping green is part of the Aitken Arts Plaza, which leads up to a handsome new building dubbed the Musco Center for the Arts.
The $82 million facility, a combination concert hall, theater and dance venue set to open Saturday, is meant mainly for College of the Performing Arts student performances and activities. But the Musco is no ordinary institutional shack, assembled straight out of a box. The elegant interior is an invitation to the general public to attend, and the state-of-the-art acoustics are meant to entice the world’s leading performing ensembles to visit.
“I believe that this is going to take its place as one of the finest university-based performing arts facilities in the nation. I expect that,” said Richard T. Bryant, the Musco’s interim executive director, while giving a tour of the building.
Entering the Julianne Argyros Orchestra Hall inside, one immediately appreciates the venue’s promise. An expansive room opens up before the viewer, the stage and most of the seats well below the first balcony vantage, the ceiling high above. There are only a little more than a thousand seats inside, but because of its height, the room seems bigger. The stage is actually many feet below ground level.
The plan is to bring in outside groups to perform in the hall when students aren’t using it (they will have first dibs), and the gala opening this week is one such occasion. Opera stars Plácido Domingo, Deborah Voigt (an Eldorado High School and Cal State Fullerton alum) and Milena Kitic (a Newport Beach resident) will sing a concert with an orchestra led by John DeMain, the former music director of Orange County’s now-defunct Opera Pacific.
Workers mill about making final preparations. Bryant says this is his first day inside not wearing a hard hat. He snaps his fingers and claps his hands to demonstrate the acoustics as he strolls through the space. A concert for workers and their families the night before, amplified and featuring student ensembles, proved a good opportunity to try out the operation of the facility, but not much of a test of the acoustics, Bryant said.
Musco’s acoustical design is by the celebrated acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota and his company Nagata Acoustics, the same team behind Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, generally considered one of the best in the world acoustically, and the Soka Performing Arts Center in Aliso Viejo, also greatly admired.
Motoo Komoda, a senior consultant at Nagata Acoustics office in L.A., has been closely involved with the Musco project since 2010. The firm consulted with architects Pfeiffer Partners from the start, he says, beginning with advising on the size and shape of the main concert space.
An orchestra needed to fit on the stage, but then, for other types of performances, there needed to be fly space above the stage in which to raise scenery, scrims, curtains, etc. But there’s also a building height limit in this historic area of Orange. Nagata solved the problem by suggesting digging a hole and placing the stage at the bottom of it.
“The stage is almost the lowest point for the public area,” Komoda said.
Next came the materials used to build the concert space.
“Acoustically, for the natural music performance (without amplification), we needed heavy materials,” he says. Heavy, dense building materials reflect, rather than absorb, that natural sound. “So we suggested a certain number of surface density for each part, like the ceilings and walls and floor.”
The stage floor is relatively soft, however, underneath it a “huge, void space,” Komoda said. In this way, it acts like a large resonating box for the instruments playing on top of it. The stage becomes a kind of musical instrument itself.
For amplified performances, during which the hall’s natural acoustical setup could be too lively, Nagata designed cloth banners that can be lowered from slots in the ceiling to absorb the sound. A metal mesh can also be deployed high, and mostly out of view, in the ceiling above, for the same reason.
Pull the banners up and the petal-shaped reflective panels, around 50 of them, come into play. These have slightly rounded surfaces, to diffuse sound evenly around the room.
Perhaps the most impressive visual element of the acoustical design is the concert shell, its deeply burnished wood with lines engraved on it in an abstract pattern resembling sheets of music paper. The shell is made of super dense material and weighs 110,000 pounds. Nevertheless, it dismantles and can be raised with relative ease into the flies.
Also on the shell is a curious pair of what look like shelves. Komoda explains that these mimic the effect that balconies have in the seating area, reflecting sound down to the audience below.
“So we needed the same thing for the musicians on stage,” he said. “That’s why we designed a continuous surface pointing towards the orchestra stage area.”
Acoustical design is both an art and a science, and somewhat unpredictable. Komoda and Toyota have had relatively little opportunity to test the acoustics at Musco. They’ve brought in a few soloists – a pianist, a violinist, a vocalist and a trumpeter – and were happy with what they heard. Two key acoustical parameters, a “rich reverberance” and “clarity,” were nicely balanced, Komoda said.
“We confirmed, ‘Oh, those are OK, so far, so far.’ We haven’t listened to full orchestra yet.”
The big test is Saturday. Toyota will be on hand to consult with the musicians during rehearsal, to coach them in how to play in the unfamiliar acoustical space.
The Center is named for Paul and Marybelle Musco, longtime Orange County philanthropists in the arts, education and medicine, who gave $38 million to the project. Paul Musco is ecstatic about the results.
“Are you kidding? It’s the most magnificent thing around, a bigger stage than Segerstrom, L.A. Opera, the sound systems,” he said recently when asked what he thought of the hall.
But then you could see Musco’s satisfaction months ago, captured in a video posted on YouTube. Wearing a hard hat and bright orange vest, he is seen touring the unfinished facility with a similarly dressed William Hall, founding dean and artistic director of the venue, on one side and Domingo on the other. Testing the acoustics, Domingo breaks out in the aria “Di Provenza il mar” from Verdi’s “La Traviata,” his arm around the shoulders of a beaming Musco.
Musco emphasizes, as everyone else does, that the facility is first and foremost for the students, but he can’t help dreaming about other opportunities there.
Musco sits on the board of Los Angeles Opera, and once was one of the biggest supporters of Opera Pacific.
“I could envision, and that’s my vision now, if they were putting on something at L.A. Opera that I would say, ‘Well look, why don’t you take that whole set and come right down to Orange County and let’s do it here?’” he said.
What’s more, he’d like to bring Opera Pacific back, “because it was a good company, and hopefully it could be part of the Chapman family thing, of what we do there.”
He’ll have a powwow with DeMain about it when the conductor’s in town, he said.
“Whatever it is, I’m going to somehow get opera as a unit at the musical center. And that’s a commitment I’ve made to myself.”
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