“Best in The West”: Chapman University’s Musco Center

Chapman University's Musco Center for the Arts in an Acoustic Showpiece. When a visitor enters Chapman University by its main gate today, the sight that first appears is a stunning one: to ones left, a spacious green lawn slopes down, lined with bronze busts of famous icons of the arts: Ella Fitzgerald, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Placido Domingo.

Rising up at the bottom of the slope is a large, handsome four-story building, its façade in the neo-Prairie Style favored by the university, its doors open to the public as patrons stroll down the park’s sidewalks and stream inside. This is Marybelle and Sebastian P. Musco Center for the Arts, Chapman’s new, world-class performing arts venue—a venue many decades in the dreaming that is now a reality for fortunate Chapman students, the campus, and the surrounding community.

A Hotbed of Vocal and Instrumental Talent

Chapman University, a mid-sized private institution that serves about 8,000 undergraduate and graduate students in Orange, California, has long been a hotbed and top producer of both vocal and instrumental talent. Graduates of its acclaimed College of Performing Arts and Hall-Musco Conservatory of Music have regularly gone on to flourishing careers on Broadway, in professional dance companies, in symphony orchestras, on opera stages, and behind the scenes in production and management.

But prior to the opening of Musco Center—since the day the university moved to its present campus in Orange from Los Angeles in 1954—its student artists had always performed in Memorial Hall, an old 1920s-era auditorium. It was a beautiful and historic building, of course, but one without the stage size or the state-of-the-art technical features a modern performance venue requires. The $82 million, 1,044 seat Musco Center for the Arts first opened its doors to the public in March 2016, with a Grand Opening concert that featured Domingo and other opera stars, as well as a host of young Chapman-trained opera up-and-comers.

It was the happiest of events for philanthropist and arts supporter (he’s vice-chair of L.A. Opera’s board) Sebastian “Paul” Musco and Marybelle Musco, his wife. The Muscos spearheaded the fund-raising campaign to build the Center, donated at nearly half the funds to build it, and took an active interest in almost every aspect of it, from the building’s design and tech to the colors of the upholstery and carpets. Longtime donors to Chapman—the music conservatory and a professorship in Italian are also named for them—the Muscos saw their greatest legacy come to life that night.

Audiences enter a lofty hall crafted of natural wood and other materials, spangled with dozens of glittering “dewdrop” lights. On the walls surrounding the seating chamber, acoustic “petals” reflect and augment the sound. The visual effect, as more than one onstage performer and audience member has noted, is a little like being inside a finely constructed musical instrument like a violin or cello.

Acoustics are the True Glory of Chapman’s Musco Center

Above all, once the performance begins, it is the acoustics that are the true glory of Musco Center. Arts critics have remarked on this since the grand opening, with Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times calling Musco Center “an ideal opera house, potentially the best in the West and maybe even something more,” while Broadway World used terms like “magnificent” and “stunning” in highlighting “the impeccable sophistication of the hall’s acoustics.”

None of this came about by chance. “Acoustics have always been our number one priority,” said Dr. William Hall, founding dean and artistic director of Musco Center. “You can have the best-looking concert hall in the world, but without great acoustics, you have nothing.” To that end, Dr. Hall and the Muscos brought aboard the man who is perhaps the finest acoustician in the world: Yasuhisa Toyota of Nagata Acoustics of Tokyo and Los Angeles, who has designed the sound environments for more than 50 of the world’s finest concert venues, from Australia’s Sydney Opera House to Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, from the Elbephilharmonie in Hamburg to the Danish Radio Symphony Hall in Copenhagen. When he arrived as the building was under construction, Toyota noted the fact that the main part of the hall would be underground, and said that boded well for the final outcome of the acoustic environment. The campus parkland on which Musco Center is built slopes downward below street level, with the lowest story of the building itself more than 50 feet underground.

This was done to comply with the height requirements of the historic neighborhood, Old Towne Orange, that surrounds Chapman University: a mile-square National Register-designated area that showcases dozens of buildings dating from 1888 to 1940. Since the top of Musco Center’s stagehouse would have been taller than local regulations require, the whole building was planned to be partially underground—an act of neighborliness and community compliance that also led to the fortunate acoustical side effect.

Adding to the great acoustics is Musco Center’s pride and joy: a one-of-a-kind, 117,000- pound orchestra shell designed by Nagata Acoustics. Through use of this shell and its adjustable “shelves,” the hall can transform from proscenium stage to concert hall in less than an hour. The heavy orchestra shell can be fully flown, disassembling “Transformers”-style into pieces that tilt, pivot and fly into specific slots in the complex grid above. The result is an outstanding environment for acoustic music that can be changed over very quickly—a true concert hall that can also handle theater and opera, not just a proscenium stage that happens to have an orchestra shell.

Leadership Sets Up Successful Seasons of Diverse Programming

Musco Center’s next challenge was choosing a professional staff, headed by an executive director skilled both at launching new halls and at the long-term goal of setting up successful seasons of the kind of diverse programming a university campus requires. Dr. Hall, the Muscos and Chapman administration found their leader in Richard T. Bryant, a longtime Southern California arts leader and administrator who had founded his own company, Front of House Services, in New Jersey in 1998, specializing in launching new arts venues throughout the nation. Bryant came aboard at Musco Center as a consultant at first, and accepted the permanent appointment as executive director shortly before the Center’s Grand Opening.

Under Bryant’s leadership, Musco Center has powered through its Preview (Spring 2016) and full Inaugural Season (2016-17), featuring such luminaries as the Kronos Quartet, jazz icon Dianne Reeves, Broadway star Rita Moreno and country legend Vince Gill. Flourishing partnerships have been forged with L.A. Opera and regional arts powerhouse Philharmonic Society of Orange County. A new concept, the Musco World CAFE, brings in day-long free cultural festivals showcasing the varied ethnic communities of Southern California.

Musco Center embarks on its second full season this fall, with a line-up that includes the return of Plácido Domingo with his L.A.Opera in a concert version of Verdi’s masterpiece Nabucco, plus performances by LA Dance Project led by Benjamin Millepied, pianist Yefim Bronfman, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Blind Boys of Alabama, Michael Feinstein, Riders in the Sky, Black Violin, Los Lobos, new World CAFE offerings, and much more.

“It’s been a real joy to watch it grow and to see the campus and local community discover and attend our offerings,” said Bryant. “Where it goes next is going to be nothing but exciting, as we continue to bring performances from all across the globe right here to Musco Center.”

About the Author
Mary Platt is director of the Hilbert Museum of California Art at Chapman University and has written articles on the visual and performing arts for many publications, including the Los Angeles Times, Orange County Register and Art of the Times.