An aerial view of the first structure being constructed at South Coast Plaza. (August 25, 2011)

COSTA MESA — Bonnie Hall was there when the cultural ground in Orange County shifted to the rousing sounds of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

On opening night, Sept. 29, 1986, the soprano and other members of the Pacific Chorale sang the vocal climax of the symphony's final movement. They and another O.C.-based chorale accompanied conductor Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a concert inaugurating the county's first world-class music and dance venue.

The Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa was born.

"It was a pretty proud moment for Orange County," said Hall, who later became founding executive director of Arts Orange County, a nonprofit arts advocacy group. "It was a significant symbol of Orange County's declaration of cultural independence from Los Angeles — at least in the performing arts — and it was a catalyst for O.C.-based organizations to aspire to a level of excellence."

OCPAC, which has since expanded and was recently renamed the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, is now preparing to officially commemorate its 25th anniversary on the weekend of Sept. 30 to Oct. 2.

The name was changed to honor the family who donated parcels of its land holdings in northern Costa Mesa on which the arts complex stands — and who made substantial cash donations toward its development. The center is the county's largest nonprofit arts institution.

The planned celebration promises to be as big and sweeping as the national and worldwide reputation for excellence that the center has established since opening in the autumn of '86.

It has carved out a name particularly as a top Southern California venue for classical dance productions. The center has worked with noted choreographers to stage West Coast and international premieres of classical dance productions, among others.

During the commemorative weekend, the center will offer some free shows along with premium box office programs. To showcase the center's reputation for dance, the San Francisco Ballet will headline jubilee weekend performances, as well as kick off the center's 2011-12 dance season with a separate program Sept. 27-28.

Center officials are billing the upcoming celebration and anniversary season around a theme of inclusiveness. They say they plan to maintain the institution's long-running commitment to educational programs with local schools, and make its range of artistic programming more accessible and appealing to the general public and younger generations.

Toward that end, the center will launch the "Access for All" initiative this season, reserving 10,000 tickets priced at $10 apiece. The discounted tickets should give buyers access to shows across the center's core disciplines: classical dance and music, Broadway musicals and jazz.

"They're being made available for different performances of all the genres we present all year to make sure that everybody in the community can participate in what the community has created here," center President Terrence W. Dwyer said.


O.C. rising

When the 3,000-seat Segerstrom Hall opened in September 1986, the vision of Richard Lippold's "Fire Bird" sculpture — spreading its wings within the frame of a red-granite grand portal arch — heralded a new era for Orange County.

The booming and sprawling county had finally "arrived" and "come of age," as Los Angeles Times reports from the period put it.

"Culture was finally catching up with commerce," a Times editorial proclaimed in July 1983, when ground was broken for OCPAC's construction.

And on the day that the $73-million concert hall finally opened, Sam Hall Kaplan, a Times design critic, pointedly observed that the new arts venue promised to give the nearby South Coast Plaza shopping center "a new and exciting urbanity; a place to be entertained and enriched, to see and be seen, an opportunity to beat back the specter of a stultifying suburbia that has long hovered over the county's cultural maturation."

It may have taken three years to build the center, but the project to bring such a venue to Orange County began in the late 1960s. Various groups — including the Newport Harbor Foundation, created in 1969 — had formed with the mission of bringing a performing arts venue to Orange County.

Some of the groups eventually united under an umbrella organization called the Orange County Arts Alliance, which was the precursor of Arts Orange County.