News Column

Cal State Northridge's Valley Performing Arts Center shifts into high gear

May 9, 2014

By Dana Bartholomew, Daily News, Los Angeles

May 09--His father was a legendary Chicago high school basketball coach as famous for his teamwork as his practice drills and deft ball handling.

Now Thor Steingraber, the new executive director of the Valley Performing Arts Center at Cal State Northridge, has a game plan just like his late dad, Roger.

The former vice president of programming for the Los Angeles Music Center recalled once being told, "You direct opera like a basketball coach -- practice, rehearse, prepare, drill.

"When you're in game mode, you're in game mode. I got game mode."

Three years ago, the San Fernando Valley's first performing arts center opened to great fanfare as a music, dance and theater magnet -- and the cultural heart of the entire region.

It was as striking as it was tall: a $125 million world-class concert hall whose 1,700 seats were housed within 6 million stone tiles, 4,000 tons of steel and 30,000 square feet of glass.

It was as tunable as a Steinway concert grand: 34,000 square feet of movable acoustic panels, enough to cover half a football field, providing perfect sound for each and every performance.

And it was as visible as any institution in the Valley: an LEED-gold-certified concert hall, the dream of Valley leaders for decades, soaring above the CSUN gate at Nordhoff Street and Lindley Avenue. The entrance, surrounded by 150 trees from oak to palo verde, glistened like a waterfall of frozen glass.

VPAC's official debut in January 2011 drew anybody who was anyone who paid $1,000 a seat for a star-studded opening gala, with the eventual slate of offerings running the gamut from the American Ballet Theater to Cuban jazz musician Artury Sandoval.

"It is a treasure and needs to be recognized as such," said Joy Picus of Reseda, a former Los Angeles councilwoman who has attended just about every performance there since. "It needs to be seen as an asset for the San Fernando Valley -- it's the cultural center that we've talked about for 30 years."

"For me, it's been everything that we've hoped for," said David Honda, a board member of the University Foundation and the North Campus Development Corp. "The university is very pleased."

The good news is that by May 2015, the university expects to pay off the outstanding $3 million debt on its $12 million VPAC construction loan.

The bad news is that after a three-year honeymoon, officials said VPAC's largest performance space, the Great Hall, generally fills only half of its seats on average, with ticket sales bringing roughly $2 million a year.

Theatergoers, which tend toward gray-haired highbrows, include far fewer students than expected. Despite performances by the likes of country singer Willie Nelson and jazz musician Diana Krall, many of the dates center on classical music, ballet and high-art shows.

"On the one hand, we're on a campus with 38,000 students," said Steingraber, 47, who replaced VPAC Executive Director Robert Bucker on March 12. "On the other hand, I have been the youngest guy in the audience."

An informal survey of CSUN students approaching finals week found that few had ever attended a nonacademic VPAC performance. Many at the mostly commuter school were unaware of what goes on at the performing arts center.

"I thought it was a classroom," said Jamaican native Yanique Robinson, 22, at a Burger King directly across from VPAC. "I've never seen a ballet dance performance -- and would love to see it. But I've never heard of any performance there."

"I've never been," echoed Mike Adamian, 22, of North Hollywood. "I've never even known about it, to be honest. I like all types of music. But what I'd like to see now is electronic music ... any type of music that had DJs. You'd see more students."

As a film crew staged a commercial for Mercury Insurance at VPAC last week, 18-year-old Angelo Reyes walked through its spacious plaza hoping to see an upstairs art exhibit. "It's always closed," he said. "This is, like, my third time trying to get in trying to explore my school. It's inaccessible.

"I want some slap bass," he added. "I want to feel the groove."

He may by the time he graduates. University officials are planning a range of shows to attract both students and a cross-section of residents from across greater Los Angeles.

As a step in that direction, officials brought in the half-Swedish Steingraber, who for two decades directed productions at the L.A. Opera and throughout the world. While at the Music Center, he heralded the opening of the city's Grand Park.

When the 12-acre swath adjacent to City Hall opened two years ago, it was met with a block party of buzz in the downtown Civic Center. Since then, the park's gone gangbusters, becoming a locus for L.A. New Year's bashes, organized drum circles and even this Labor Day weekend's Made in America music festival, hosted by rapper Jay-Z.

"I think he'll be able to build on what we do well, Colin Donahue, CSUN vice president for administration and finance, said of Steingraber. "It's a world-class facility. That facility is as good as it gets. We need to get (more) people in there. We really want to increase our reach."

On a recent day, Steingraber, a seventh-generation Chicago native who now lives ini Silver Lake, rolled up his sleeves and pondered VPAC's billings after the current season.

On Dec. 13, the performing arts center will feature the vaunted Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, playing in the Valley for the first time. Beyond that, he sees shows tailored to diverse array of L.A. neighborhoods.

"We have many villages, many ZIP codes, and I should be able to book five performances in a week and attract different audiences from each of those villages and ZIP codes, starting with our own ZIP code on campus," said Steingraber, dressed in a crisp white shirt, skinny black-and-brown tie and herringbone vest, his beard closely cropped.

That could mean more classical music, from four-piece chamber groups to 110-piece orchestras ideally suited to the Great Hall, he said. It could mean major L.A. theater, dance and music artists not yet heard in the Valley. It could mean a major performing arts or country music festival. And it could mean a series of Central and South American music performances geared to L.A.'s growing Latino audiences.

"The benchmark is buzz -- to put a button on it. If I've got a buzz in this building, people will drive across the Valley (and) from over the hill. The benchmark is buzz."

___

(c)2014 the Daily News (Los Angeles)

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