Disney Hall At 20 Years Gets A Heroic Fanfare Led By Composer-Hero

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Esa-Pekka Salonen returned to Disney Hall, which he helped bring into the world in 2003, to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic in works by Salonen, Muhly, and Strauss. (Photo by Andrew Eccles)

LOS ANGELES — Hard as it is to believe, the month of October has marked 20 years since Walt Disney Concert Hall opened for business and pleasure in 2003. Hard to believe because it still seems so new and gleaming and futuristic, and it still attracts hordes of tourists snapping pictures and selfies in front of its curving stainless-steel-clad walls.

Esa-Pekka Salonen, then music director of the resident Los Angeles Philharmonic, was there to open the hall with an eclectic program that ranged from Gabrieli canzoni and Ives’ enigmatic The Unanswered Question in surround sound to the orchestral pyrotechnics of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. For the hall’s 10th anniversary in 2013, Salonen — then and now, the Phil’s conductor laureate — celebrated with a really outlandish choice, a newly reconstructed version of the young Frank Zappa’s outrageous multi-media theater piece/rock opera/whatever, 200 Motels.

So it was only fitting that Salonen would return Oct. 27-29 to the hall he helped bring into the world, only a few days after its exact 20th anniversary date (Oct. 23). No swanky gala celebrations — that happened three weeks earlier — or multimedia audacities aimed at wider audiences this time. But adventure there was in purely musical terms as Salonen brought with him a piece (Richard Strauss’ An Alpine Symphony) and some of the personnel that he has been showcasing in San Francisco. He still gets a hero’s welcome from local audiences upon each return (unlike the LA and SF sports scenes, there are no fierce U.S. 101 rivalries that I can see in the music world).

Walt Disney Concert Hall turned 20 in October. (Photo by Richard S. Ginell)

For starters, Salonen was commissioned by the LA Phil to provide a piece in honor of the hall’s 20th anniversary and its world-famous architect Frank Gehry, 94, who was present in his customary seat on the aisle of Orchestra Level 2 on Oct. 29. When the 2023-24 season was announced, the piece was simply called Fanfare, but by the time of the world premiere on this occasion, it was considerably more than that. It is now a 12 1/2-minute orchestral piece called Tiu, which Salonen says is a Finnish version of an ancient Nordic word that means in English “twenty” (get it?) or “score” (get that, too?).

And there’s more on that theme; the beginning of the piece is a succession of 20 chords separated by 20 beats, eventually repeated in reverse order to create a palindrome. Accelerations and decelerations in tempo also form a palindrome in another sector of Tiu.

All of which is interesting to contemplate — perhaps. But what the listener notices most prominently is the whomping opening, the huge taiko drum in the rear of the orchestra, the three trumpeters nestled in the side terraces and center organ loft, and, always, the ever-changing, complex, colorful orchestrations that Salonen’s recent orchestral output is known for. There is also serenity in the unexpectedly calm coda, which Salonen thinks may be due to his nostalgia for the hopeful weeks and months leading up to the hall’s opening. In any case, I hope to hear it again soon.

Violinist Pekka Kuusisto was soloist in Nico Muhly’s ‘Shrink.’ (Bård Gundersen)

Nico Muhly wrote a violin concerto for Salonen’s Finnish compatriot Pekka Kuusisto at about the same time (2019), when they became part of the conductor’s incoming team of Collaborative Partners at the San Francisco Symphony. The piece is called Shrink, which is exactly what happened at this concert when the huge forces for Tiu were reduced to 17 string players for the concerto. The first movement has some busy neo-classical passages and angular, sustained bowings and pizzicatos for Kuusisto to dig into; the second movement is mostly stasis leading to a cadenza that launches the third movement’s fast machine. In other words, a 21st-century variation on the good old fast-slow-fast concerto scheme, capped by an unconventional encore — a Kuusisto solo improvisation that sounded folk-music-based.

The full LA Phil came roaring back, and then some, for Strauss’ extravagantly scaled and scored hike up and down the mountain — his last stab at a tone poem until Metamorphosen some 30 years and two disastrous world wars later.  Salonen tended to power through much of the score in his clear-eyed modernist fashion, seldom relaxing to enjoy the views until the descent of night at the close, which he took exceptionally slowly with profound effect. Episodes like “At the Waterfall” and the tinkling of cowbells coming from somewhere in the balcony behind me were a detailed delight to the ear in the razor-sharp acoustics of this hall.

The thunderstorm, one of the most violent and graphic depictions of this weather event in the literature, was stunning in its impact, the closest thing I’ve heard live to the storm in the untouchably great performance of Alpine by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic in Pasadena’s much smaller Ambassador Auditorium in 1982. If only Disney Hall had been in existence back then.