Disney Hall at 10: Early Hype Proves Augury of Success

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Walt Disney Concert Hall under construction - the view from 1st and Grand (Richard S. Ginell)
Walt Disney Concert Hall under construction in Los Angeles – the view from 1st and Grand. (Richard S. Ginell)
By Richard S. Ginell

There was never an opening of a new concert hall quite like that of Walt Disney Concert Hall on Oct. 23, 2003. The hype was overwhelming, even suffocating.

Salonen, Borda and Gehry show model of Walt Disney Concert Hall
Salonen, Borda and Gehry show model of new hall. (La Philharmonic)

The hall was declared a raging success before a single note had been played to an audience. It was going to remake the image of Los Angeles from superficial Tinseltown to a world-class cultural center to rival anything on the lordly East Coast. It was going to be the equivalent of the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, the Sydney Opera House – a defining symbol of a city. It was going to redraw the portrait of the Los Angeles Philharmonic – the ensemble that would spend the most time there – into something new and path-breaking. It was going to be “a living room for the city” (in architect Frank Gehry’s words), a perfect meeting of populism and elitism. Those who said the place would never be built when construction was temporarily halted in 1994 due to shortfalls in funding and squabbling over the building’s components and Gehry’s radical design were humbled into silence.

We are now approaching the ten-year mark since these pronunciamentos were made – and amazingly, a good portion of these euphoric predictions have come true.

A decade on, Disney Hall remains a novelty, a tourist attraction in itself. At almost any hour of the day, you can see the hall being used as a backdrop for tourists who photograph the building or have their pictures taken in front of it. It has, as predicted, become a symbol of Los Angeles, rivaling the Hollywood sign and Disneyland’s Magic Castle. You can see Disney Hall on countless TV commercials: It has almost become a cliché for companies hawking luxury cars to have their vehicles speed in front of the stainless-steel sails that crown the building.

The interior of the building remains endlessly fascinating upon each visit. Going up the escalators in the lobbies, you see a constantly changing parade of bizarre yet graceful shapes and outgrowths from the designs within the main auditorium.

The sound inside Frank Gehry's auditorium is shaped by acoustics of Yasuhisa Toyota (LA Phil)
Frank Gehry’s structure incorporates acoustics by Yasuhisa Toyota. (LA Phil)

Inside, the hall is clearly an acoustical success – with its stunning detail, firm pinging bass, just enough reverberation, adequate warmth, and virtually total isolation from outside noise – and it has worn well over the years for this regular visitor (though it is still not immune to criticism from some who never cottoned to the high-definition sound). It has made the Philharmonic a better orchestra, for now the musicians can hear themselves and each other better – particularly the basses – and because the clarity is so revealing, the hall keeps the players on their toes. There is nowhere to hide – both sonically and, due to the wrap-around audience seating, physically.

It is not a great hall for amplified music, but then it wasn’t supposed to be, for Gehry and acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota were building a symphony hall for acoustical instruments, though with ears also attuned to modern high-fidelity home systems.

One thing that hasn’t happened is that Disney Hall is still not quite on the same footing as Hollywood as a cultural symbol for Los Angeles – not yet, at least. L.A. remains first and foremost the movie capital to the outside world, and you can still sense a condescending tone from various quarters of the East Coast when they write about Los Angeles events, though this does seem to be diminishing with time.

Esa-Pekka Salonen explores Disney Concert Hall during construction. (LA Phil)
Esa-Pekka Salonen during the hall’s construction phase. (LA Phil)

For the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the futuristic design of Disney Hall went hand-in-hand with a change of the orchestra’s image from just another custodian of established symphonic verities to a forward-looking ensemble that takes chances. That shift was already underway to a certain degree for many years under then-music director Esa-Pekka Salonen – encouraged by the orchestra’s savvy president and CEO Deborah Borda, who has also bolstered the Philharmonic’s balance sheet to an enviable degree of good financial health since her arrival in 2000. But the move from the old Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to Disney put it into overdrive – right from the very first pair of gala opening programs.

The first concert on Oct. 23, 2003, could be likened to an audiophile playing with a flashy new system for the first time, trying a little bit of this and a little bit of that to hear how it handled diverse material. It opened with jazz’s Dianne Reeves singing the national anthem, followed by a J.S. Bach solo violin Preludio, Ives’s The Unanswered Question in surround sound, an antiphonal brass piece by Gabrieli, Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna for a cappella chorus, Mozart’s tiny Symphony No. 32, and finally, like a flower bursting into bloom, Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring.

In retrospect, the second program the following evening gave a much clearer indication of where Salonen intended to take the Philharmonic – Salonen’s own LA Variations, Lutoslawski’s Cello Concerto (with Yo-Yo Ma), the world premiere of John Adams’s The Dharma At Big Sur, and finally Revueltas’s Sensemayá. The direction was set – regular injections of new music, big stars, splashy modern showpieces that play to the strengths of the hall, crossing genres with increasing freedom.

Multimedia enlivens 'The Tristan Project.' (LA Phil)
Enveloping multimedia transforms ‘The Tristan Project.’ (Craig Mathew)

Over the remaining six seasons of Salonen’s term as music director, festivals built around composers and concepts proliferated as never before: “Building Music,” a multi-media Berlioz Festival, an International Youth Orchestra festival, “Shadow of Stalin,” “Beethoven Unbound,” and “Sibelius Unbound” (the latter two paired the symphony cycles of both composers with contemporary works). The “Tristan Project” made extensive use of Disney Hall’s high-tech, wrap-around environment, trying to invent a new multi-media concert format with Wagner’s opera as the focus, under the direction of Peter Sellars with images of video artist Bill Viola.

Perhaps most audacious of all was the “Minimalist Jukebox” festival, the first time a major orchestra ever gave a massive expanse of time to so-called minimalism (complete with a midnight “rave”), gradually drawing a new, strikingly different young audience. Yet the most significant outcome of all this enterprise came outside the festival format. At a certain point in time, consecutive concerts of new music didn’t have to be designated as “festivals.” It was just the way things were normally done at Disney Hall.

Music director Gustavo Dudamel loves new and 'crazy' projects (LA Phil)
Music director Dudamel, enthusiast for the new and ‘crazy.’ (LA Phil)

Anyone who worried whether the music policy would go into retrograde under the Phil’s new young music director from Venezuela didn’t reckon with the extent to which contemporary music had ingrained itself within the Philharmonic agenda. And Gustavo Dudamel turned out to be just as enthusiastic an advocate for new music and “crazy” (his word) projects as Salonen.

Shortly after Dudamel arrived, Disney Hall hosted a “West Coast, Left Coast” festival under the aegis of John Adams (who also curated the “Minimalist Jukebox”). The Unbound concept continued with “Brahms Unbound.” There were also several residencies by Thomas Adès and a gigantic “Mahler Project” in which Dudamel single-handedly led the nine completed Mahler symphonies and Adagio from the Tenth with two orchestras in 24 days.

Gehry created scenic installations for Dudamel's DaPonte Trilogy (Craig T. Mathew)
Gehry’s ‘Giovanni’ installation for DaPonte trilogy. (Craig Mathew)

The impetus from the “Tristan Project” was taken up by Dudamel in his Mozart Da Ponte trilogy, trying different unorthodox stagings in the hope of turning Disney Hall into a viable concert opera house. (Frank Gehry returned as set designer for “Don Giovanni.”) Indeed, the 2012-13 season boasted what amounted to an alternative opera season as counterpoint to Los Angeles Opera in the Chandler Pavilion across the street.

Marching more-or-less in step with the Philharmonic, Disney Hall’s other resident group, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, also began to expand the scope of its repertoire, encouraged by its eager music director, Grant Gershon. Disney Hall also became a regular host of jazz and world music concerts to a degree never attempted in the Chandler.

Remarkably, the last five years of this dynamic expansion of possibilities occurred during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression – and that leads to the issue of whether Disney Hall has truly become a living room for the city. It has – but mainly for the well-heeled, for ticket prices to the Philharmonic shot up after the move from the Chandler Pavilion and have only escalated since. For a mid-level figure like the Spanish guest conductor Juanjo Mena last June, the range of ticket prices was $60 to $189.

To see Salonen in October, the cheapest seat way up in the gods is $58, for Dudamel, it’s $73.50. Sometimes, the seats in back of the orchestra go for sale at about $20 or so, but not always. It’s hard to see how less-than-well-off music lovers can call this alluring yet pricey hall their “living room.” Moreover, due to the cost and steadily worsening traffic problems that Los Angeles is cursed with, some frustrated folks have given up making frequent treks downtown to hear music – and several new arts complexes in the suburbs and surrounding cities have arisen to cater to them.

Yet the hall is still frequently filled to capacity (particularly when Dudamel conducts), the dark rows of empty seats that greeted the orchestra in the Chandler Pavilion in the 1990s and early 2000s now a distant memory. With a huge metropolitan area (pop. 13,052,921 as of a 2012 estimate) as its base, the Philharmonic’s bet that they can consistently fill 2,265 seats in a tourist attraction at these prices seems to be paying off.

And with the lineup of three world premieres and one U.S. premiere in October to commemorate the hall’s 10th anniversary – plus more massive projects this season like a complete Tchaikovsky symphony cycle from Dudamel in February, and a second “Minimalist Jukebox” festival in April – it looks as if Disney Hall will continue to host the audacious and the unexpected into the future.

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LA Philharmonic 10th anniversary logoTIMELINE OF 10TH ANNIVERSARY EVENTS

Sept. 30: Opening Night Gala Concert, music by Cage, J.S. Bach, Tchaikovsky, Adès, Mahler and Saint-Saëns; Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel (conductor), Yo-Yo Ma (cello), Netia Jones (director, video designer).

Oct. 3-6: Peter Lieberson: Shing Khan (world premiere, realization by Oliver Knussen), Schubert: Symphony No. 4, Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1; Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel (conductor), Pedro Carneiro (percussion), Yefim Bronfman (piano).

Oct. 12-13: Brett Dean: The Last Days of Socrates (U.S. premiere), Beethoven: The Ruins of Athens Overture, Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 2, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Master Chorale, Gustavo Dudamel (conductor), Peter Coleman-Wright (baritone), Leif Ove Andsnes (piano).

Oct. 18-20 Magnus Lindberg: Cello Concerto (world premiere), Debussy: Nocturnes, Bartók: Music For Strings, Percussion and Celesta; Los Angeles Philharmonic, Women of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor), Anssi Karttunen (cello).

Oct. 23 Frank Zappa: 200 Motels; Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Master Chorale, Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor).

Oct. 25-27 Salonen: Violin Concerto, Ives: The Unanswered Question, Sibelius: Symphony No. 5; Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor), Leila Josefowicz (violin).

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Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide.

First drawing by Frank Gehry of the Walt Disney Hall concept. (Frank Gehry)
First drawing by Frank Gehry of the Walt Disney Hall concept. (Frank Gehry)
Walt Disney Concert Hall at night. (Aaron Logan via Wiki)
Walt Disney Concert Hall at night. (Aaron Logan)