View From the West: Learning from All that is Right with Disney Hall



Alan Rich

The red carpet has been rolled up, the hors d’oeuvres eaten, and the champagne stored until the next gala event—which, this being Los Angeles, is sure to happen soon. Last week the city breathed a collective sigh of relief and opened the grand glass doors to its latest cultural amenity, the Walt Disney Concert Hall. The orgy of self-congratulation having expended itself in three big-time concerts of above-average quality as galas go, some serious music-making is in the offing: Schubert and Liszt by pianistic whizbang Evgeni Kissin, the Mahler Second and a program of hard-core contemporary chamber music, most of it brand-new.

Not since the hoopla at the opening of Lincoln Center has there been so much anticipation, so much journalistic ink spilled over a new home for the arts—any arts. Not since the building of the Sydney Opera House has the anticipation and the ink been expended on the looks of a structure as well as its potential sound values. And no wonder; like its Sydney counterpart, Los Angeles’ new musical venue gives off a wonderful dynamic even in total silence: a gigantic spring coiled every which way, ready to soar.

One thing, however, is different. Philharmonic Hall, the first segment of the Lincoln Center project, was an acoustic failure from the beginning; after gazillions of dollars’ worth of remake, it remains one today. Sydney’s two major halls within its Opera House, neither exactly abject, aren’t anything to rave about, either.

From the start, on the other hand, the main concern at Disney Hall has been acoustics, almost (but not quite) as though the stupendous, epochal Frank Gehry architectural design was some kind of afterthought. The reason is clear; the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, a stone’s throw from the new site, has from the first day (December 7, 1964) suffered the fate of all halls built to serve both concerts and stage productions: the sound is poor, diffuse, lacking in clarity and impact at both ends of the sound spectrum.

As long as the orchestra served to mirror the conductorial pizzazz of the glamorpuss Zubin Mehta, and had no personality of its own, nobody seemed to mind the acoustic flaws at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion—nobody except the formidable Ernest Fleischmann, who came in as general manager in 1969 and immediately began to dream about getting the Los Angeles Philharmonic out of the damn place. The dreaming became desperate post-Mehta, simply because the succeeding conductors raised the standards of the orchestra itself, to the point where Los Angeles’ famously insouciant audiences began to care about music-making, not just about sexy exoticism on the podium. This rise of caring about music has culminated in the municipal worship lavished upon the skills and adventurous spirit of the present music director, the phenomenally talented Esa-Pekka Salonen, who has brought the orchestra to a position beyond any Angeleno’s dreams (perhaps even Fleischmann’s); a place of envy even among xenophobic East Coast critics.

Therefore, unlike New York’s Philharmonic Hall, a new residence for the Los Angeles Philharmonic wasn’t merely a new toy for the city—a glitzy unneeded stand-in for the still-admirable Carnegie. Los Angeles desperately needed a better setting for its still-improving orchestra. Perhaps it even helped build interest in the new structure that the hall has taken so long a-building after the 1988 ground-breaking. Something mysterious has been taking shape at the corner of First Street and Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles for the last 15 years, something with girders going every which way, capped in swirls of shiny metal that reflects the famous California sunshine in a golden hue at noon, as silvery as moonbeams at night. The building site underwent several metamorphoses in those years; once there was to be a hotel, then a separate chamber-music hall, finally neither. Civic leaders expressed fear of Frank Gehry’s roller-coaster designs; interestingly enough it was Lillian Disney herself—known as a protector of conservative, romantic values (including a passion for flowers, fountains, and playspaces for children) and the donor who had put up the first $50 million of the $274 the construction ultimately required—who came on as protector of Gehry’s progressive design. “If Gehry goes, I go,” said Mrs. Disney in so many words. She did not live to see the completion of her grandest gift to Los Angeles, but she lives on in the beauty surrounding “her” hall: the gardens, the outdoor performing spaces, even a fountain in the shape of a rose, her favorite flower.

As the inaugural date approached, the Philharmonic management continued to move along notably wise paths. There were to be no speeches of the usual deadly tributary sort on opening night, just music. That music, too, was to be substantial: an imaginative program on opening night that moved as a sonorous crescendo—from a single melodic line (a Bach Prelude for solo violin) to a lightly-scored Mozart Symphony to the veritable cataclysm of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (music imbedded in the Los Angeles conscience since Disney himself had worked his cut-to-ribbons version into his notorious high-culture stab, the 1940 Fantasia that had incurred Stravinsky’s ire). By the end of the Stravinsky, Los Angeles audiences had come to erupt in pride at the superlative sound properties of its new hall, and to its welcoming beauty as well.

Second night at Disney was an even stronger declaration of principles: four challenging works of recent times, one of them a world premiere, all of them a statement of Salonen and his orchestra’s dedication to the ongoing creative impulse. John AdamsThe Dharma at Big Sur was the new work, co-commissioned by the Los Angeles and Orange Country Philharmonics, a dazzling love-note to the Yankee-born Adams’ own adopted California. Local West Coast composers provided the theme: Terry Riley and the late Lou Harrison, who cast their eyes westward and brought the harmonies of the Pacific Rim into their own music. Authors imbued with the essence of Californianism— Jack Kerouac and his roadrunner fictions above all—added to the spirit of the work. Adams’ Dharma is a half hour ecstasy in the form of an endless melodic line poured forth from the six-stringed electronic violin of Tracy Silverman, processed by computer circuitry to sing its song from the dark reaches of the cello all the way to string coloratura. The melodic material partakes of the elemental harmonics of just intonation; the orchestra provides a series of sunsets in support. A minute or two overlong, if truth be told, Adams’ new work continues the wonderment, the richness and infinite variety of his musical invention.

Planners of the new hall’s program have their eyes on far horizons; the first year’s programs are chock-a-block with innovative program ideas, most of them neatly designed to narrow the gap between Los Angeles’ notoriously fickle classical-music audience and the adventurous spirits at work in the Disney offices. The third-night of the “Gala” celebrated the inevitable nearby presence of Hollywood’s film studios, not with a bowdlerized, Disney-ized Rite of Spring but with a celebration of the film colony’s more substantial accomplishments from Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo to a solid new John Williams score, with both Williams and Salonen (a self-confessed recent movie convert) on the podium. On unscheduled symphonic nights, indeed, Disney Hall can serve the movie guys as an elegant venue for premieres; the week following the formal opening it lowered its built-in screen for the latest in the Matrix series. In this way, too, the new space asserts its sense of belonging to the world around it.