A Lavish Home for the Sick Man of the Arts World

By David Mermelstein

Published November 14, 2003, issue of November 14, 2003.
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The music season has barely begun, yet the most important event of the year is already over. The zenith in question is the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the new home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The opening was, in fact, a series of concerts, held between October 23 and October 26, rather than a single blowout. But this wasn’t just an event for tout Los Angeles; the nation as a whole is surely better for Frank Gehry’s billowing, glimmering temple to orchestral music. For if ever it could be said that the perpetual sick man of the arts world — classical music — has rallied, it is now.

Among the scores of people who contributed to the rising of Disney Concert Hall, four deserve special credit. Gehry designed a hall that honors music and boldly stands up for its importance. That he has been the subject of countless printed paeans in recent weeks in no way lessens the awe one feels confronting his achievement; this hall is beautiful to behold and a joy to inhabit. To create the hall, Gehry worked hand-in-glove with acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota, and as far as music goes, Toyota’s role may be the more significant. It was telling, for instance, that at the third of the gala concerts, Toyota received a louder and longer ovation than Gehry did. Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Finnish boy wonder, has led the Los Angeles Philharmonic for a dozen years already, yet his fresh-faced enthusiasm and ingenuous belief in classical music’s future helped build this hall as much as the generous philanthropists who pitched in cash. Nor did it hurt that under Salonen, the Los Angeles Philharmonic has gone from a solid provincial orchestra to a top-flight ensemble of national stature. Finally, credit must be given to Deborah Borda, the orchestra’s ever-brash, perpetually hawking executive director. She relentlessly sold Disney Hall as a populist endeavor, one as vital to Los Angeles as a major-league sports team. Her tirelessness has paid off.

So how good is it? Well, it is a marked improvement over the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the Philharmonic’s acoustically undistinguished previous home. But, thankfully, it is also more than that. The orchestra that Salonen and his players have worked so hard to hone finally has a showcase worthy of those exertions. The strings now have the body and depth they seemed to lack before. The woodwinds have gained transparency only hinted at in the past. The brasses possess a hitherto unknown sheen. And the percussion — well, let’s just say audiences expecting a popgun had better prepare for a bazooka.

The hall has been designed without a proscenium, so seats run along the entire perimeter of the auditorium, including behind the orchestra. But despite various egalitarian cries, not all of Disney Hall’s seats are created equal. Though the sound is to a greater or lesser extent brilliant and clearly articulated throughout the space, there are definitely sweet spots. The real problem is one of visualization. If you close your eyes in this hall, you will doubtless enjoy the music from wherever you are sitting. If you don’t, you may find that the sounds you think are coming from a certain place are instead coming from an altogether different location. At the very least, it’s disconcerting. (The same phenomenon is apparent at Bard College’s Fisher Center, which was also designed by Gehry and Toyota.)

The concerts were laudably unpredictable, though they were longer on concept than musical values. The first one, “Sonic L.A.,” was the live equivalent of a demonstration disc: a series of mostly short pieces featuring increasingly larger groups of performers. The effect culminated in Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” in a performance by Salonen notable for speed, rhythmic thrust and sharp dynamic shifts. Phrasing, by contrast, didn’t seem much of a concern.

Considerably more substantive was the second concert, an evening of modern music in which the oldest piece on the program was written about 50 years ago. The highlight turned out to be the first work, Salonen’s own “LA Variations,” a colorful, raucous piece that places the orchestra’s instrumental choirs on vivid display. If Salonen can continue to write music this good, and the Philharmonic can play it this well, bring it on. Almost as impressive was a performance of Wiltold Lutoslawski’s tension-filled Cello Concerto, with Yo-Yo Ma as the committed, lyrical soloist. But John Adams’s “Dharma at Big Sur,” commissioned for the occasion and clearly intended as a major work, proved a major disappointment. Rife with cheap New Age musical motifs and repetitive even by minimalist standards, the work, which featured an overbearing electric violin solo by Tracy Silverman, began innocuously enough before becoming the aural equal of Chinese water torture.

After the Adams, the last of the galas, a salute to Hollywood with the naked goal of co-opting the local film community, seemed blessedly conventional. In truth, the excerpts from film scores were mostly delightful — sonically splendid, lovingly performed and musically gratifying, in their rather obvious way. Among the highlights were John Williams conducting Alfred Newman’s heartbreaking music to “Wuthering Heights” and Salonen leading a luminous performance of music from “Vertigo,” a Bernard Herrmann masterpiece.

What all this music-making proves, even when various pieces disappointed, is that Disney Hall has lived up to its promise. The Los Angeles Philharmonic already sounds vastly better in its new home. The future can only bring further gratification.

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