Sound politics

Warmth was in short supply as Orange County's year-old Performing Arts Theater made its public debut on Oct. 26. First, the air conditioning seemed to be working on overdrive. Second, and more important, not even a new orchestra shell with a gorgeous cherrywood veneer could push the full sound of the visiting New World Symphony very far out into the hall, immediately quashing any hopes that the performing arts in Central Florida might have found a new stage.

Until very recently, almost no one in the arts community even knew that the 2,600-seat hall existed. Completed last year as part of the expanded Orange County Convention Center, it was intended only for the likes of CEO cheerleading rallies and private showcases that accompany many a convention gathering. Those bookings leave very few open dates for anyone else to step in -- and certainly, according to county officials, the hall is not positioned to counter Orlando Mayor Glenda Hood's pitch for a performing arts center downtown.

But it wasn't long before Orange County Chairman Linda Chapin sensed a larger potential. And last spring she pulled back the curtain to reveal to several people -- including Louis and Joy Roney, founders of the Orlando Celebrity Concerts Association -- a setting that Chapin hoped would one day present some of the world's greatest orchestras.

Already musicians have filled the orchestra pit, playing private concerts as backup to stars such as Natalie Cole and Ray Charles, a frequent convention act. And in recent weeks the box office has put tickets on sale for the first public concerts -- the just-announced Indigo Girls on Nov. 29, and Barry Manilow on Dec. 5 and 6. But those are amplified acts, presumably a natural fit for a hall not designed for natural acoustics.

Miami's New World Symphony, then, would provide a test case as OCCA opened its 1997-98 season. No one knew what to expect.

The answer was immediately apparent. A patron sitting in the rear orchestra seats said it was like listening from inside of a Kleenex box. At intermission, a musician in the ensemble described the sound on stage as "dead." Robert Swedberg of the Orlando Opera Company, who was there, said "it either goes directly to your ear or it dies." Absent any desired reverberations, it died quickly.

There was no lobbying from the stage as Chapin welcomed concertgoers. But her assistant, Lisa Nason, said before the show what others may be thinking. "Once people see what a true performing arts center is like, we hope that it will contribute to the enthusiasm for having our own performing arts center."