Full Sail

by Rebecca Winzenried

The Los Angeles Philharmonic sets a new course, anticipating the sights, sounds, and collaborations its landmark Disney Concert Hall will bring.

At a press event five months prior to the scheduled opening of Walt Disney Concert Hall, architect Frank Gehry strolls onto the stage for a discussion about the hall's creation. As he takes a seat, Gehry scans the auditorium left and right, up and down. There's a certain curiosity in his expression as he appraises the finishing touches that are still being applied, as if--like the assembled group of journalists--he were experiencing the space for the first time. Leaning toward acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota, seated to his left, Gehry points out a spot in an upper balcony, another on the ceiling. The two whisper confidences and share a laugh. Next to Toyota, Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen leans confidently back in his chair and shows off a bit for the crowd, clapping his hands and listening as the echo rings out over the stage and terraced seats. "Not bad," he says, theatrically.

The trio exudes the jocular demeanor of friends coming off a long road trip. And in a sense that's what they are. For no one can deny that the journey to this point has been a long, strange one. Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles opens October 23, sixteen years after Lillian Disney announced that she was donating $50 million for construction of a concert hall to honor her late husband's love of music. The intervening period was marked by starts, stops, design disputes, ballooning costs, and the very real possibility the project would be scrapped entirely before the undulating steel framework finally began to rise in 2000.

Which perhaps explains the near giddiness with which the creative team has approached the impending opening--a three-gala event with concerts to celebrate the hall's acoustics, its connection to the modern city and contemporary music, and to Hollywood filmdom. After this first hard-hat press tour in May, a group including Philharmonic Executive Director Deborah Borda followed Principal Concertmaster Martin Chalifour around the building, drinking champagne toasts and listening well into the night as he tried out one space after another--from the main stage to the pre-performance space off the lobby foyer. "That was the night I really felt we took possession of the hall," says Borda.

It wasn't the first time Chalifour had been summoned for a test drive. The first was a late-night rendezvous in 2002, before the stage was even completed, when Gehry and Salonen couldn't wait any longer for a sneak preview. "Naturally, everybody is terribly curious," says Salonen. "Lots of people have been standing on that stage, imagining what it will be like." Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who has been on the committee overseeing the project, even brought his recorder to stand center stage and play Danny Boy. More officially, Philharmonic musicians have been involved in the fine-tuning of the hall over the summer, beginning with a percussion ensemble in early May and building up to larger groups before full orchestra rehearsals were to begin in late summer. "The pitch of excitement is so high, we can hardly contain ourselves," says violinist Roy Tanabe.

People are already staking out their favorite places. "The surprise spot for me was the pre-concert space," says Borda. "The wood, the soaring ceiling, the skylight. You couldn't really get a sense of it from the drawings." That space has been noted by several visitors for its striking acoustics, offering, perchance, a hint of the larger room's sound.

No one was making official statements about the main auditorium's acoustics prior to the gala opening, but the sense is there's not a lot of worry about how the hall will sound. And there's definitely not a lot of worry about how it will look: The sculptural, stainless-steel building is already being hailed as a new icon for the city of Los Angeles. "Its effect on the city will be--is--stunning," says Tanabe. "I'd be very, very surprised if the image of the Walt Disney Concert Hall doesn't eventually replace the Hollywood sign and clogged freeways as the city's official logo."

It's easy to feel relaxed in Disney Hall. The 2,265-seat auditorium, with its "vineyard" shape--meaning there is no proscenium and seats surround the orchestra in a gently terraced manner--has a cozy, intimate air. Surfaces are honey-colored Douglas fir, and with the stage pulled forward toward the center of the space the seats feel close-in to the action. Borda notes that visitors often misgauge the auditorium's capacity. One pegged it at 1,400. "It feels that size because of the rake of the seats," Borda says.

The seats themselves are upholstered in a jumble of mixed hues and floral bursts, honoring Gehry's promise to Lillian Disney that he would incorporate some kind of garden design into the hall. The "Lillian" pattern of the vivid upholstery and carpet used throughout, designed by Gehry, recognizes the late benefactor and her interest in horticulture.

Sunlight filters into the auditorium from eight skylights above the cloud-like acoustical ceiling and a 36-foot-high window behind the tiers of seats. The architect fought for natural light, virtually unheard of in modern concert halls. "When you go to the matinee concerts and come out, it's like coming out of a movie in the afternoon. It doesn't have to be dark like that. If you can bring in some natural light it has a feeling of a more comfortable space," says Gehry, noting that such classic concert halls as Vienna's Musikverein have lunettes around the ceiling.

All in all, the auditorium displays a kind of California attitude--relaxed, informal, adventurous, and somewhat whimsical. The stage platform is backed by an organ with wildly splayed pipes, like a giant fistful of pickup sticks. (Gehry created the organ's form; Manuel Rosales designed its sound. Installation will be completed for the start of the 2004-05 season). It's a match to the fantastical exterior, with its sections that billow upward the equivalent of five stories and spill down to beckon visitors into the entry at the corner of Grand Avenue and First Street.

Grand Entrance
Walt Disney Concert Hall sits on a 3.6-acre site atop Bunker Hill in downtown Los Angeles, across the street from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the Philharmonic's home for 39 years. Both halls are part of the Music Center complex, which also includes the Ahmanson Theatre and the Mark Taper Forum. The elevation allows the new hall to be seen from several approaches--rounding Bunker Hill or turning a corner from adjacent streets affords a startling glimpse of multiple, off-kilter forms. The wafer-thin skin of brushed stainless steel has a warm, organic quality that takes on tones from blue-gray to white to golden at different times of the day.

Swooping. Soaring. Shimmering. Billowing. Sculptural. Iconic. "We've run out of adjectives," Borda laughs. Even before its opening, the building has inspired writers, reviewers, orchestra staffers, and city officials to exhaust the thesaurus and resort to metaphors. The hall has been described as a symbol of the transformation of the orchestra--its sound and place in the community--of the concert hall in the 21st century, of a renaissance for downtown L.A., even for the creative struggles of Gehry's career.

Gehry was well respected in the architectural world, but hardly a household name when he won a competition in 1988 to design Walt Disney Concert Hall. His selection, based on the strength of a conceptual interior model that Lillian Disney loved, was a surprise. The Los Angeles-based architect was best known regionally for the renovation of his own Santa Monica home, sheathed in corrugated metal and wire fencing. A Disney family lawyer knew there would be problems and told the architect there was no way the family would ever put its name on something he designed.

As predicted, Lillian Disney was taken aback by the final design, an amalgamation of impossibly curving shapes. What Gehry now calls his "swoopy phase" was inspired by his interest in sailing. (He has compared the building's forms to a ship at full sail.) Mrs. Disney famously, politely, asked the architect if he could perhaps come up with something a little more in the Disney-esque mold--"little brick, thatched-roofed buildings with ponds and ducks" as Gehry remembers. She eventually acquiesced to daughters Sharon Disney Lund and Diane Disney Miller's belief in the merits of the design, and gave the project a green light. The hall was expected to open in 1997 at an estimated cost of $110 million.

The project was not Gehry's first with the Philharmonic; he had worked on acoustical renovations of the Hollywood Bowl. It did give the lifelong classical music disciple an excuse to dig deeper into the orchestra world. Unbeknownst to the rest of the world, it seems the architect harbors secret desires to be a musician. "These are my Walter Mitty things. I wish I could do it, but I can't," he says. "As much as I've been around music all my life, I'm still a dilettante."

While the public debated the unorthodox building's "crumpled napkin" exterior, and some questioned how it could even be built, Gehry focused on completing the design from the inside out. He consulted musicians, conductors, and composers, "a virtual Who's Who of the music world," he says. "I was very interested in getting a sense of how they experience the space and what was important to them." The idea of a fixed auditorium emerged. "If you make it movable, changeable, nobody knows how to play it. Who makes the moves and changes? The conductors wanted to follow the rules of the acoustics, to make a room that they can change. Which they have to do all the time anyway."

Gehry embarked on a grand tour of the world's great concert halls with Ernest Fleischmann, then the Philharmonic's managing director, whom he calls a "spiritual musical advisor." He also began consultations with Salonen, who had just been appointed music director.

The Berlin Philharmonie was a favorite model because of its vineyard design. The incoming music director had conducted there and felt quite comfortable with the design's immediacy and connection to the audience. The Philharmonie also fit Gehry's concept of creating a hall that is comfortable for the audience and user-friendly for the musicians. "When you go there, it's got painted steel-pipe hand rails, concrete floors, an exterior that's weird. But go in and spend time thereÉthere's a feeling of warmth. If you look at pictures of the interior, you wouldn't think that. I've been there many times and I've experienced this wonderful generosity of space," he says. "It does what it's supposed to do. It creates an inviting place for people to come. And it's jammed every night. You can't get tickets." Gehry draws a parallel to his own work. "In a way my own house looks weird from the outside, but it has this sense of warmth inside. I love doing that. It's a part of my life. I focus on the people parts of it."

Acoustically, the principals were also drawn to the lively sound of Tokyo's Suntory Hall. Its designer, Yasuhisa Toyota of Nagata Acoustics, was brought on board. "Almost all people ask how, from the exterior, could I possibly work on this building, that architects are so difficult," says Toyota. The acoustician was surprised to find himself being presented with sketch after sketch of the interior. "Usually an architect has some image of the space and asks us 'please make it work acoustically'--that kind of process. Frank started from a completely blank paper. Then he asked many questions, to know what the acoustician was thinking," says Toyota.

"Well, I had a lot of experience with other acousticians," Gehry demurs. "What happened with Toyota is that my intuitive thing was to be able to explore things together," he says, adding, "Once he allowed himself the freedom to play with me, he could relax.

"It was like riffing," says Gehry. "We could go back and forth, really shaping our ideas." It helped that Gehry's firm used computer modeling programs that could translate acoustical needs into architectural expressions. "I think he was happy because I would take the trajectory of his direction to someplace unexpected for him architecturally," says Gehry. "He always kept saying, 'That's better than what I asked for.' "

The duo has continued to work together, recently unveiling the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. The opening of the Center's 900-seat Sosnoff Theater in April was closely observed as a possible acoustical preview of Disney Hall. The general consensus after the opening concert by the American Symphony Orchestra was that the hall exhibits a warm and very live sound. Los Angeles Times critic Mark Swed wrote, "Not so much in-your-face as in-your-head, it might be likened to listening to music through the kind of exceptionally fine headphones that make the rest of the world disappear. Here, you get all that music involvement without subtracting your environment from the equation." Even the lowest notes of the basses "vibrated through the hall with presence and clarity."

Sonic L.A.
Similar impressions have been made by Disney Hall. "It's quite clear that the sound is going to be very immediate. The hall has a tremendous warmth and vibrancy," says Grant Gershon, music director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, which will also be in residence at the hall. Gershon served as assistant conductor of the Philharmonic from 1994 to 1997. "At the Chandler, you always had the sense that you were in another room. Here you're literally in the same room. The sound doesn't get filtered."

The Master Chorale will be featured in the opening concert on October 23. Dubbed "Sonic L.A.," the program has been designed as a gradual unwrapping of Disney Hall's acoustics. It begins with a solo rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner by vocalist Dianne Reeves, the Philharmonic's new creative chair for jazz, and moves through a Gabrieli fanfare to Ives's The Unanswered Question, Ligeti's Lux Aeterna, and Haydn's Symphony No. 103, to end with The Rite of Spring. Gershon will conduct the Ligeti work, with Salonen taking the remainder of the program.

The Philharmonic's music director can't wait to tear the roof off the new digs. "The one thing I'm really eager to hear is what our orchestra can doÉto get the sound that really rattles the bones. I'm not talking about decibel levels, per se, but that kind of visceral reaction that you can't get at the Chandler," he says.

Salonen has spent essentially his entire career in Los Angeles preparing for this moment. He was named music director in 1989, as plans for the new hall were getting underway, and officially came on board in 1992, just in time for the groundbreaking. He was there in 1995 when spiraling costs caused Los Angeles County, which owns the Music Center property, to shut down construction with only a parking garage to show for it, and he witnessed the reinvigorated fund-raising campaign in the next couple of years that finally kick-started construction in 1999.

Along the way, the music director shifted from ideological discussions--What should a concert hall be? What role should it play in the community?--to concrete decisions such as layout of the stage. "This was the most crucial thing I was involved with, the proportion. You need enough space between people so they can move," he says, gesturing with a sweep of his arms, "but not too much so the sound is affected."

Even the orchestra risers--their size, shape, and placement--became a factor in acoustical considerations. Risers that will be in place at Disney Hall are the same size and configuration as those used at Royce Hall in the Chandler Pavilion for the last eight years. The difference is that they can be lifted up and down hydraulically to set the stage.

Salonen's reward was to conduct the very first piece of music in Disney Hall--March of the Gladiators. Brass and percussion players blared the lumbering circus theme for an echo test in mid-May. Salonen will get to conduct his own LA Variations when rehearsals begin for the second inaugural gala, "Living L.A." The October 24 performance will also feature the world premiere of John Adams's Dharma at Big Sur. Salonen and John Williams will both conduct on October 25 as the third inaugural concert, "Soundstage L.A.," celebrates film music.

Musicians and conductor know that the new hall will affect the orchestra's sound, and they know it will take some time to settle into their new environs. "It's such a sensitive acoustical space. We have to learn to reapportion the volume," Salonen says, pointing out that the audience will also have to go through a learning curve. "They will have to learn to cough more quietly, to unwrap the candy more quietly," and he issues a mock-stern warning for those sitting at the back and sides of the stage, "if a cell phone rings, I will know just who it is--because I can see you."

Gershon has also been preparing the Master Chorale for the technical changes its new performing space will demand, exploring a new range of color and sound. The group will occupy its first dedicated rehearsal space at Disney Hall, a choral room that is flooded with natural sunlight via skylights, and which Gershon describes as very user-friendly. "There's something so fun, almost whimsical about the structure. Every time you enter, you have the sense that you've never seen it all, there are so many new twists or angles that you never noticed before," he says. "The buzz is real. People want to be part of it."

Bilbao, and Before
Disney Hall has been drawing curiosity seekers from the moment the building starting taking shape. A speaker's bureau of volunteers (including the head of the company that installed the interior wood surfaces) was formed early in the year to handle the influx of requests for information. They'd given presentations to nearly 1,000 people by late May. It's been the subject of numerous articles and even a book, Iron: Erecting the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Former L.A. District Attorney Gil Garcetti's volume of photographs focuses on the steelworkers who had the challenge of affixing oddly shaped panels, cut with jigsaw-puzzle precision, onto a rollercoaster-like frame.

In other words, Disney Hall has reaped the kind of attention lavished upon every Frank Gehry-designed building since the 1996 opening of his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. An often overlooked fact is that the Disney Hall design preceded the Bilbao Guggenheim that made Gehry the "star-chitect" (as Borda puts it) he is today. Disney Hall not only informed what has become recognized as the Gehry style--it was the original model.

Conversely, Bilbao may have saved Disney Hall from oblivion. Gehry's titanium-clad museum drew critical and public acclaim, luring more than a million visitors in its first year and giving instant recognition to a previously obscure Spanish port town. City planners and arts managers everywhere woke up to the connections between art, architecture, and civic identity. Los Angeles officials suddenly realized they had a potential jewel stashed in their back pocket.

Fund raising for Disney Hall began anew in 1996, with a capital campaign spearheaded by businessman Eli Broad, then-Mayor Richard J. Riordan, and Music Center Chair Andrea Van de Kamp that would bring in the additional dollars needed to restart construction. (Final cost of the project: $272 million.)

"It became kind of a test: Does L.A. have the wherewithal to pull something like this off? If we did, it would be a real confidence builder. If we didn't, it would reinforce the negativity of what the early '90s meant to this region," says County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, alluding to a time when corporate takeovers found major donors leaving the business center, and images of the 1992 riots were hardwired into the national consciousness.

Things are changing for downtown Los Angeles. The last decade has brought the opening of the Staples Center (home of the Lakers), the massive Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels, and the Colburn School of the Performing Arts. The latter's Zipper Concert Hall and the neighboring Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art are drawing crowds with their adventurous programming. "A lot of people from all over the region have gotten used to coming downtown. I don't think it's such a novelty anymore," says Yaroslavsky.

An increasing number are even choosing to live there. A nationwide demographic trend that finds suburban-weary homeowners and young professionals opting for in-town living is also registering in Los Angeles. An estimated 10,000 people now live downtown--not a huge number, but significant for an area that has typically cleared out after 5 p.m. And the numbers are projected to keep growing as nearly 80 projects are underway to redevelop former office buildings and warehouses into upscale lofts and apartments. "Before, no matter what you did, you couldn't get people to want to live there," says Yaroslavsky. "Developers have been trying for 35 years to get people downtown. We've always known that you've got to get a critical mass of residents, you've got to get some pedestrian activity. That's starting to happen."

That pedestrian aspect is being played up with improvements to the two blocks of Grand Avenue reaching from Disney Hall, past the Music Center complex, to the new cathedral--another architectural landmark and tourist destination. By the time Disney Hall opens in October, the stretch of Grand will have wider sidewalks, pocket parks, improved lighting, and lots of trees. Outdoor dining at Disney Hall and Music Center restaurants will encourage people-watching.

The streetscape will act as a kind of front yard for a hall that virtually reaches out and grabs passersby. The entrance sits right on top of the corner of First and Grand Avenue; glass front doors can fold upward to open the lobby. The urban garden requested by Mrs. Disney, who died in 1998, will be open to the public, and an outdoor amphitheater tucked behind the auditorium will host children's programs. The lobby will be open during the day for access to the box office, restaurant, and parking garage. Audio tours are planned for the inevitable music and architecture buffs.

"This building has one of the only public approaches in the city. It is not a car experience, it is a pedestrian experience," says Salonen. It reinforces the idea that this is not a temple of high culture, a place to worship at the altar of classical music, he notes, but a part of everyday life, "even if you never go inside."

Of course, the Philharmonic has devised lots of ways to entice people to actual concerts. The carefully crafted inaugural season offers an array of options for audiences new and old. The very first concert will be performed for children, a not-so-subtle nod to the audience of the future. Invites for the other "Phil the House" preview concerts October 15-19 will go out to educators, county workers, and the construction workers who built the hall.

Throughout the season, there will be concerts, discussions, and collaborations on the theme of creation and, of course, the connection between music and architecture. Some will build on partnerships with schools, previously untapped community groups, and other L.A. arts organizations. The new First Nights series, in partnership with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, will explore the cultural landscape at the time of famous premieres. (What influences in Parisian life, circa 1913, drove the first-night Rite of Spring audience to riot?) Jazz and World Music series have been added. Disney Hall also includes the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (popularly known as REDCAT), a 250-seat black box theater for the California Institute of Arts's experimental programming. "If there's a sense of 'I don't want to listen to classical music,' well here are some other ways into the building," says Borda.

How audiences will respond remains to be seen. Ticket prices have been an issue as some subscription prices nearly doubled for the new season--Philharmonic subscriptions now range from $35 to $120 per ticket. But as of late May, the orchestra had sold more than 26,000 subscriptions (as compared to the 27,000 sold for the last season at the Chandler Pavilion) with 92 percent of the highest-priced seats claimed; the new Jazz and First Nights series were sold out.

Disney Hall has some 1,000 fewer seats than the multi-purpose Chandler Pavilion (still home to the Los Angeles Opera). One result has been an expanded schedule of concerts (from 89 to more than 100) to accommodate subscribers and new series; another has been the Herculean task of reseating longtime subscribers. Apparently some subscribers have found their own way around the situation, reportedly purchasing seats in different locations for different series to try out the acoustics and sight lines. The Philharmonic fully expects a shuffling of seat requests over the next couple of seasons as word spreads about the merits of orchestra vs. terrace vs. orchestra view (back of stage) seats.

Only one person, it seems, has no doubts about where he will be. "I have the best spot," says Salonen, "right in the center of it all."

Sounds like the wish a lot of people are making for the place Disney Hall will assume in the city of angels.

Rebecca Winzenried is managing editor of SYMPHONY.