By Richard S. Ginell
Walt Disney Concert Hall is used to hosting swanky gala benefit concerts to kick off its fall seasons. But not like this one.
In order to commemorate Disney Hall’s 10th anniversary, the benefit on Sept. 30 for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and its education programs set out to tell the story of the making of this unusual concert hall with a most unusual program. It was mostly done with music – and in one pointed case, no music at all – illustrated with Netia Jones’ video imagery, projected on screens shaped like the stainless-steel sails crowning Disney Hall, and prefaced with wry recorded voiceovers by none other than the creator of the building, Frank Gehry.
As such, it was a throwback to the first concert ever held in this futuristic facility on Oct. 23, 2003 – bits and pieces of this and that, patched together as a kind of narrative that transcended its parts. And it was a revealing concert, for amidst the celebratory tone, memories of the sometimes bitter battles on the way to the completion of the hall were still fresh in some minds.
First came a bit of audacity that was simultaneously amusing and very serious. Urging us to contemplate the near-vacuum-like ambient sound of Disney Hall when nothing was happening, music director Gustavo Dudamel “conducted” a performance of John Cage’s notorious silent piece 4′ 33″ – making microscopic gestures with his wrists as the musicians raised their instruments, placed them down, and raised them again. For what it’s worth, the “performance” ran overtime; I clocked the piece at 5′ 12″ (perhaps the tempo was too slow!).
Yo-Yo Ma’s gentle, subtle rendition of the Preludio from J.S. Bach’s Cello Suite No. 3 represented the strands of inspiration for the building, with an Etch-A-Sketch-like display on the video screens re-tracing Gehry’s original drawings. The development of the sketches into models for the hall was depicted by Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, gracefully and deftly outlined by Ma as Dudamel impulsively raced the tempos of the scherzo-like variations.
To illustrate the complexity of Disney Hall’s design, there was Thomas Adès’ brief, wonderfully wild These Premises Are Alarmed, which, from the vantage-point of a seat on the Garden Level overlooking the orchestra, was revealed in stunning three-dimensional sonic detail by Dudamel and the Philharmonic. The only living composer on the program, Adès – now a part-time Los Angeles resident – was on hand to take a bow.
Then, the score settling started. A quote from Gehry – “I get blamed for trying to build too complex a building for a long time” – was flashed onto the screens. With that and other choice spoken words from the architect, Dudamel tore into an exceptionally biting and, in the coda, frantic rendition of the “Rondo Burleske” from Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 as sometimes caustic newspaper headlines from the 1990s filled the screens. This was supposed to depict the hall’s difficult, protracted birth – and it did so with candid ferocity and bile that were startling for what you think would be a self-congratulatory event. Yet it also faithfully amplified Mahler’s own bitterness that is right there in the music.
Of course, there was a happy ending. With the building completed, Disney Hall’s idiosyncratically-designed pipe organ thundered forth the big C-Major chord that opens the final section of Saint-Saëns’ “Organ” Symphony, and Dudamel and company came charging out of the gate – if not always with their customary precision. Some of the conductors who have appeared here over the last ten years could be seen in a gauzy parade on the screens, and the piece ended in all the blazing fortissimo glory you would want. Mission accomplished, the music seemed to say.
Still, there was more. Lest everyone forget for whom the building was named, Dudamel tacked on an encore, a syrupy symphonic treatment of “When You Wish upon a Star,” from Walt Disney’s Pinocchio, as star-shaped Mylar confetti appropriately imprinted with the numeral 10 fell upon the orchestra level. I could have done without having that as the tune lingering in my mind upon leaving the hall, but I suppose attention must be paid.
Note: For lots of background, click here.
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide.