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Since its opening in 2011, Aliso Viejo’s Soka University Performing Arts Center has served as one of Orange County’s premiere concert venues. The hall itself is an acoustic marvel, the performers generally drawn from the world’s elite. A surprise, then, that it doesn’t have a higher profile. It’s not quite an afterthought, but not quite the first thought either.

Have You Seen A Show at Soka?

The perception is that the Soka University campus is too far away and inconvenient to visit.  But is it really?

For those willing to make the trek to the hidden gem tucked into a residential neighborhood in South Orange County, they will find a beautiful oasis that is only 5 minutes off the Aliso Creek Parkway exit on the 73 toll road.

Parking is free and abundant.  The programming at the Performing Arts Center matches the top venues around the country. The space is intimate and acoustically stellar.

If you are willing to drive into Laguna Beach, a trip to Soka is just as close.

That’s a situation that Renee Bodie, the Center’s general manager, is making an effort to change. Brought on board in 2018 following the retirement of David Palmer, the Center’s previous general manager, Bodie is determined that Soka’s public footprint match the level of its programming. This is the first season she’s overseen in its entirety, and it’s clear she’s taken great pains to show the hall off to its best effect.

“The vision I have for the season and the programming we’ve put in place are intertwined,” she says. “My vision for the season is that I wanted to produce the best quality of music that we can and to bring to listeners an awareness of this incredible concert hall we have at Soka. It’s a beautiful hall, created by master acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota, who also created Disney Hall among many others. And to have this right here in Orange County is unbelievable, amazing, and I wanted to bring awareness to that. We are an exquisite concert hall right up there with the best in the world, and I don’t know how many people know that, honestly.”

Bodie, previously executive director of the Levitt Pavilions of Los Angeles and Pasadena and former president of Folk Alliance International, has produced hundreds of concerts through the years. Key to her vision is knowing what suits the venue best. Take for example the Great Pianists series this upcoming year, which will feature Murray Perahia, Yefim Bronfman, and Daniil Trifonov, among others. It’s a Murderer’s Row of pianists, some of the most dominant players alive.

Daniil Trifonov will perform at the Soka PAC on Sunday, February 9, 2020. Credit: Photo courtesy of Soka PAC

“The reason for creating the great pianist series is that solo piano is beautiful in our hall,” she says. “It’s an amazing listening experience: you’re transported. And that was number one for me, to program in a way that fits this hall. We are not a Segerstrom or Musco, we are our own entity, an intimate and acoustically perfect hall. Because we’re smaller than Disney, about half the size, you feel like you’re in your own living room listening to perfect acoustics.”

Voice of OC’s Season Picks

Soka’s Great Pianists series has been included among VOC’s top picks for the upcoming arts season.  Find out what other events are on the list.

MacArthur “Genius” Fellow, Kyle Abraham’s A.I.M. will perform at the Carpenter Center on January 25, 2020.

Also appearing this year, Arlo Guthrie, Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer, Taj Mahal, Kenny Barron, Barbara Morrison, and a three-concert series featuring the Pacific Symphony.

“I wouldn’t program this hall like any other performing arts center,” she says. “You have to program for the hall. The great pianists series was to display its pristine acoustics. I also wanted to expand genres, I wanted to increase the diversity of our audience. I added a blues series. And Bela Fleck is off the beaten path but it’s exquisite music, and it allows us to expand our reach and increase our diversity.”

Above all, beyond the genres, Bodie has a deep understanding of the primacy of the immediate experience. Live music carries its own unique benefits.

“That shared experience of live music connects people in a way beyond words,” she says. “You’re sitting in a concert and you’re feeling so much, and the person next to you is feeling the same thing. It’s very different from streamed music where you’re not in a communal space. It’s really important for people to hear live music, to share a human experience that builds bridges and connections between people. That’s what we want to do, is create a space for that to take place.

“You’re not alone, you’re with other people. And the artist is translating that experience from a higher place. You can’t get that from a recording. There’s a transformative energy that comes from the performer right to the audience and it’s so palpable.”

The world-class acoustics at the Soka Performing Arts Center were designed by Yasuhisa Toyota, the same man that designed the acoustics for the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Credit: Photo courtesy of Nick Merrick/Soka PAC

Asking Bodie if she has a particular concert she’s looking forward to is like asking a parent who their favorite child is. The entire season has her stamp on it, and it’s all of a piece.

“Each concert has a purpose,” she says. “For me, when I’m programing, I kind of remove the ego. When I’m seeking out something to listen to, I go to listen to what I enjoy and want to see. But here, it’s about everyone. At every concert that I’ve ever put on, there’s always a moment where you either see an audience member or they say something to you, that there’s magic, that the audience is experiencing the magic. And that tells you that you programmed well, that you did the right thing. For me that’s when I feel like I’ve accomplished that job, when I see that person who needed to be here. That program with the enraptured audience members who have been transported to another place.

“Everything has its purpose and it’s amazing fun. It can be frustrating if an artist isn’t available or someone else has them. [Creating a season] is a huge jigsaw puzzle you have to put together. But I would love to invite everyone to experience Soka because it’s a beautiful place. Once you come you’re hooked.”

Peter Lefevre is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He may be reached at palefevre@gmail.com.

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