Jewish Journal

Valley arts fans get sparkling new venue, shorter shlep

by Ryan e. smith, Contributing Writer

Posted on Feb. 2, 2011 at 12:21 pm

The exterior of the Valley Performing Arts Center at California State University, Northridge.

The exterior of the Valley Performing Arts Center at California State University, Northridge.

It wasn’t the fact that stars like Andy Garcia and Calista Flockhart were walking the red carpet that had people buzzing on Jan. 29. It was where they did it — not Hollywood and not downtown. It was Northridge.

As a pink sky turned purple, more than 1,400 people gathered at California State University, Northridge (CSUN) to celebrate the long-awaited opening of its Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC).

Many of the patrons of the arts paid $1,000 per ticket for cocktails, dinner, dancing and a chance to witness a two-hour program to unveil a facility that could change the cultural landscape for people in the San Fernando Valley and beyond who are tired of heading elsewhere to enjoy fine performances. At least, that’s how CSUN President Jolene Koester sees it.

“It allows the university to further enhance our mission by creating all of these opportunities for cultural, creative enrichment for the 3 million people [who] live in this five-valley area,” she said. “This will be a Mecca. This allows them to come forward and shlep here — but it’s not as bad a shlep — and enjoy the arts in their own backyard.”

All the while, Koester hopes the complex will help strengthen CSUN’s arts programs and advance it as a public commons for the Valley.

The highlight of the $125 million structure, funded in part through $80 million in federal, state and county resources, is the main concert hall. The glass walls of the building soar skywards, prompting visitors to stop and take pictures from both the interior and exterior. Inside, ribbons of wood undulate from the stage toward the audience.

“It’s spectacular,” gala attendee Sel Kardan said. “I think it’s exceeded my expectations. The setting and the light and just the overall atmosphere is terrific.”

Kardan is president and CEO of the Colburn School, a performing arts academy located downtown. He said the orchestra from Colburn’s Conservatory of Music is scheduled to take the stage at VPAC in May.

American Ballet Theatre stars Gillian Murphy and Jose Manuel Carreno perform at the gala opening. Photo by Howard Pasamanick

“We’re thrilled because it gives us another venue, other than downtown L.A. or Pasadena, and we’re very excited about building an audience here,” he said. “I think it’s going to have a very strong appeal. I happen to live in Beverly Hills, but it’s a very short drive. It took me 20 to 25 minutes to get over here, so I think it’s got great potential.”

The opportunity for those in and near the Valley, which has a substantial Jewish population, to enjoy the arts without the headaches of L.A. traffic appealed to others, as well.

“I think it makes it a lot more accessible to people that live in the Valley and beyond and going into Simi Valley and the Santa Clarita Valley,” said Severyn Aszkenazy, who lives in Los Feliz but works in San Fernando. “There’s a lot of art in the Valley, and this gives it a place to play out.”

It played out in all its forms during the gala, showcasing the 1,700-seat main hall’s adaptability. Ballet dancers twirled, musicians played, and actors such as Tyne Daly and Benjamin Bratt recited Shakespeare. Valley resident Andy Garcia played the bongos during a performance by trumpeter Arturo Sandoval. Comedian Cheech Marin, a CSUN alumnus, and Nancy Cartwright, who lives in the Valley and is the voice of Bart Simpson, were there too.

And that’s just the beginning. The facility’s spring calendar of events includes visits by Shawn Colvin, the Russian National Ballet, Marvin Hamlisch, the China Philharmonic Orchestra, Joan Rivers and Shirley MacLaine.

The breadth of performance styles is made possible by the hall’s adjustable acoustics and overall design, which is smaller and more intimate than Walt Disney Concert Hall downtown, according to project designer Kara Hill.

“The stage is so close, even if you’re in the very back of the upper balcony you feel very, very connected to the stage,” she said. “We can have it as concert hall but we can also have a jazz quartet, we can have a Broadway performance, we can have a lecture.”

There’s a whole other part to the 166,000-square-foot, U-shaped complex as well. It includes a 178-seat black box theater, rehearsal rooms, a 230-seat lecture hall and studio facilities for the university’s KCSN (88.5 FM) public radio station.

“This whole complex is always alive,” Hill said.

In fact, there’s so much to do now and so little time. Gala attendee Judith Butler, of Chatsworth, said she thought VPAC was “lovely” but she already has season tickets to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Opera, the Hollywood Bowl and others. It could be tough squeezing in more, but she and her husband are going to try.

“We’re supporters of the arts,” Butler said. “We will be coming here every once in a while but probably not so much because we have so many things that we go to.”

The fact that there’s one more state-of-the-art option in Los Angeles, though, was music to the ears of L. A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

“This is … the entertainment capital of the United States of America, and I dare say there’s not another university that I can think of that has a performing arts center quite like this,” he said. “There certainly aren’t very many.”

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