Segerstrom Concert Hall's six-month report card
Impressive acoustics, solid ticket sales are a plus, but some patrons have complaints.
By Mike Boehm
Times Staff Writer
March 9, 2007
Six months after it opened to great fanfare, operators of the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall are still working out some kinks that led to a mixed reception from music organizations and audiences.
Although Orange County-based performing groups report blossoming attendance in the Costa Mesa venue, the county's leading importer of classical music talent has been disappointed. Musicians are delighted with its intimacy and tailored acoustics, but concertgoers have griped that some seats have poor views of the stage.
The Pacific Symphony, the venue's main occupant, is tickled to be selling more than 92% of its seats and attracting nearly 2,000 new subscribers. But Dean Corey, executive director of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, which presents touring orchestras and soloists, speaks of "a pall" settling on the hall because of a small but significant number of complaints that emerged early on — mainly over sight lines and comfort issues. Sales for the Philharmonic Society's presentations in the hall are 75% of what it budgeted before the inaugural season. Corey says that could reflect both a wary response by people who heard there were problems and his over-optimism about how much a ballyhooed new venue would boost attendance.
Somewhere between is the Orange County Performing Arts Center, the landlord and a frequent presenter itself. Attendance has been 84% for center-sponsored events in Segerstrom Concert Hall, officials say, and 82% for shows in the Samueli Theatre, the smaller, multipurpose stage under the same roof. Center President Terrence Dwyer says those figures, and the 66% attendance for ballet, Broadway shows and other events in the center's 3,000-seat original venue, Segerstrom Hall, mean that things "are going reasonably well for us this year, and we're projecting we'll be reasonably on-budget" while making the risky expansion leap.
Musicians are having some of the biggest thrills. The hall is a godsend, say veteran players who for years struggled to be heard clearly — and to hear themselves — in Segerstrom Hall, a multipurpose auditorium that lacks acoustics specifically geared for classical music.
"The new hall is so incredibly sensitive that you don't have to push at all, you don't have to do anything unnatural to be heard," says Cynthia Ellis, who, after more than 20 years with the Pacific Symphony, no longer has to be a blowhard on piccolo and flute. "Everybody can just relax and play the way they play."
Shortly after the new hall opened, Marc Dickey, chairman of the music department at Cal State Fullerton, attended his first Pacific Symphony concert in years; he'd stopped going out of frustration that Segerstrom Hall "wasn't working in their favor." Now the impressed professor says he'll be back. He especially wants to hear how the listening experience develops as the Pacific Symphony tinkers with the adjustable acoustics. Like all venues designed by noted acoustician Russell Johnson, the new Segerstrom can be mechanically "tuned" from concert to concert.
Chris Kollgard, double bassist for the Pacific Symphony, says it has helped. "Our first concerts were loud pieces, and they were a little too boomy. Without the fine-tuning the hall can be too reverberant, but they've got a handle on that now."
Audiences have had some gripes, according to presenters who field complaints and relay them to center management. The list of problems sounds like "Goldilocks and the Three Bears Come to Costa Mesa": orchestra level too cold, balconies too hot, seating behind the stage too hard, movable box seats too squeaky. Also: safety railings too obstructive of views, legroom too stingy and, perhaps least solvable, undulating, waveform balconies designed by architect Cesar Pelli too intrusive on sight lines from certain seats in the side boxes, some of which are among the hall's most expensive.
Even musicians have their quibbles: Kollgard says that lockers for storing instruments don't fit the bigger stringed instruments, such as his double bass, and the orchestra has been asked not to use any of them until a fix is made. "People are a little upset" that the promised end to lugging their instruments hasn't arrived. "It's something we've looked forward to."
Some problems rectified
The complaints are taken seriously and "have lessened as we've made improvements," says Dwyer, the center president. Squeaky chairs have been outfitted with quieter mechanisms, more padding is contemplated for bench-like seats behind the stage, and workers are close to getting the temperature in each section just right. The sight-line problem is the biggest issue, he says, but affects just a small number of seats. (Complaints about legroom, sight lines and vertigo arose when Walt Disney Concert Hall opened, as well as problems with amplified sound that have been corrected.)
Many of the new hall's perceived bugs may be a matter of audiences adjusting from the "old" hall, says the Philharmonic Society's Corey. Still, he says, the 60 or 70 complaints his group received were enough to generate a negative "buzz" and dim some of the public's initial good feeling.
"It's not overwhelming, but it's just enough that it kind of puts a pall on things," he said. Ticket income is about 15% less than the Philharmonic Society had budgeted for the 23 performances it booked this season.
Corey says part of the problem could be the glut of offerings during the gala opening in September and October, highlighted by a 2 1/2-week residency by the Kirov Orchestra, Ballet and Opera. "I think a lot of people got tired." Also, he says he may have overestimated the pull the hall would have. In any event, "we haven't seen a real people-coming-out-of-the-woodwork factor."
Nevertheless, the Philharmonic Society plans no retreat: Its 2007-08 season again includes 23 performances in Segerstrom Concert Hall, including Kiri Te Kanawa, Yo-Yo Ma and the State Symphony of Mexico.
Dwyer says sales for the center's presentations this season — including 24 performances in the hall, 86 in the smaller Samueli Theatre that opened in October and 174 performances in the old wing — are close to budgeted attendance projections.
Meeting revenue goals matters, because the center already is under serious financial pressure as it tries to finish fundraising for the $237.5-million expansion. The new hall was completed with borrowed money and remains about $75 million short; officials have said that failure to raise it within two years could lead to programming cuts.
A happy home
Perhaps ironically for those with long memories, the happiest campers so far seem to be the homegrown performing groups. In the center's early days, locals complained about being treated as afterthoughts, with management focused on establishing Orange County's bona fides as a "world class" destination by importing famous names. With expansion — and two decades to mature — groups such as the Pacific Symphony and Pacific Chorale are enjoying more prime weekend dates and see the new hall as a magnet.
The Pacific Symphony, which is giving 76 of the 137 concerts booked so far for the hall's inaugural season, says it's delighted that more than 92% of its seats have been filled, with 1,800 new classical subscribers among a total of about 5,000.
"We really are at capacity," says John Forsyte, the orchestra's president. "We've even talked about ending the subscription campaign early" to avoid freezing out folks who want to buy single tickets for the remaining concerts. He says the plan for the near future calls for maintaining the same number of concerts, holding on to audience gains and building an endowment that will eventually allow another spurt of growth — and pay raises for the musicians.
Leaders of the Pacific Chorale and the Mozart Classical Orchestra, smaller organizations that have booked four performances each in Segerstrom Concert Hall this season, report gains. Attendance was about 90% for the chorale's first concert, says President Kelly Ruggirello, and two Christmas concerts were sellouts. Few tickets remain for two upcoming Irish-themed shows in the Samueli. Subscriptions have grown 15%.
Opera Pacific President Robert C. Jones says he worried that two concert performances of "Porgy and Bess" in the new hall last October — sans costumes and scenery — would draw poorly because of the opening-month performance glut. The shows nearly sold out, he says, "and we all seemed to agree that the choral acoustics are as good as they are anywhere. 'Spectacular' would not be overstating it."
Ami Porat, founder-director of the Mozart Classical Orchestra, a chamber ensemble that uses only the hall's orchestra seating, says it has filled virtually all of the 1,000 or so available seats. The $36,000 earned from a January performance quadrupled the best single-show box office total in the group's previous home, the 756-seat Irvine Barclay Theatre at UC Irvine.
"A number of people in the past said if we only played in a real concert hall, they would come. And they have," says Porat, who launched the orchestra in 1985. "To me, this is a magic time."