Twenty years ago, the first Segerstrom Hall opened in Costa Mesa with expansive predictions that Orange County would be known forever more as a world-class center of culture. That didn’t quite happen: As far as the world outside Southern California was concerned, Orange County remained the wealthy, sun-drenched land of Disneyland, shopping malls and endless suburbia. So with bursts of fireworks that launched two months of staggeringly ambitious programming, Orange County tried again with the debut of the $200 million Renee & Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall — whose name will be endlessly confused with that of the first hall.
Architect Cesar Pelli’s glass exterior ripples like the water of the nearby Pacific Ocean, echoed by the curvy white rims of the four interior balconies. There’s plenty of maple veneer on the walls, as well as exposed wood on the rims of each scarlet velvet-upholstered seat.
The levitating silver-leafed overhead canopies and sidewall doors opening into reverberation chambers mean adjustable acoustics, a concept acoustician Russell Johnson swears by.
The hall’s shape strongly suggests a traditional horseshoe-shaped European opera house, though with a bright, gleaming-metal ambience that speaks of our high-tech times.
Obviously, given Segerstrom’s acoustical flexibility, this has to be a provisional report, but it was possible to get a sense of the hall’s problems and vast potential Friday night.
One good sign is that the sound comes out at the audience with plenty of reflection all around — a characteristic of all of the world’s great halls. The bass is ample, while pinpoint details in the winds and percussion come through cleanly.
Yet when the Pacific Chorale went into action in the opening piece, “The Promise of Living” from Copland’s “The Tender Land,” the voices tended to grate at high volumes.
In Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, the Pacific Symphony strings lacked definition and warmth, especially in the lower-middle range; the stormy opening of the finale sounded as if it was being played in a big barrel. Also, a surge protector, we’re told, was responsible for an annoying rumbling sound in the latter half of the Finale.
There was too much reverberation in the hall’s configuration Friday; perhaps it can be dampened now that they know what an orchestra in a full house actually sounds like. Also, it’s possible that everyone was pushing too hard in their new live-sounding home after spending years trying to project in the less resonant “old” Segerstrom Hall.
The one unequivocal success of the night was the world premiere of William Bolcom’s fascinating, free-spirited song cycle “Canciones de Lorca,” sung to a heroic, sensitive, fare-thee-well by Placido Domingo in his native Spanish. Reacting to poems by Federico Garcia Lorca, Bolcom’s settings are witty, moody yet never oppressive, concluding with a marvelously sassy American visitor’s idea of a Latin American dance.
The hall itself sounded its best in this piece when the textures were spare and Bolcom’s inventive details sorted themselves out in high definition.
The festivities continued outdoors on the plaza with a flat-panel light show that could only have been designed by Robert Wilson: Its stark, shimmering, slow-moving abstractions seemed drawn straight from his opera productions.