by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Nov. 17, 2003
The old American concert halls were built not just to usher in the right sort of people but to keep the wrong sort out. Upper-crust music lovers believed that they alone had the education and the cultivation to grasp the European masterpieces. The typical hall became a self-conscious cathedral of culture from which vulgar enthusiasms were expunged. The musicians were placed on a raised platform at one end of the room, and a proscenium surrounded them as a heavy frame surrounds a Rembrandt. Time stopped; music became an artifact in a collection. Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, orchestras are in the unhappy position of reaping what they sowed. The audience is thinning out, ultimate wealth seeks its validation elsewhere, and nineteenth-century styles of concert presentation have proved unalluring to the young. Orchestras are now trying to undo the work of their forebears and to engage the culture around them, but the halls themselves, Victorian beings, have a way of resisting change.
Walt Disney Concert Hall, the new home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is born from an entirely different mentality. The name, to begin with, signifies something other than yesterday’s Social Register snobbery: Disney, with his Stravinsky music video in “Fantasia,” did as much as anyone to bring modern composition to a broad public. Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Philharmonic’s music director, is a coolly creative Finn who has partly supplanted the usual Austro-German fare with a lean diet of Stravinsky, Bartók, and Shostakovich. Frank Gehry, the building’s architect, is a singular sort of pop avant-gardist, whose parabolic forms are instantly fixed in the public mind. Ernest Fleischmann, the Philharmonic’s former managing director and abiding éminence grise, has long plotted to abandon the old paradigm of the Beethoven-centered, status-obsessed orchestra; it was mostly under his influence that Lillian Disney, Walt’s widow, came up with the fifty million dollars that got the hall under way. Put all these aspirations together and you have a potent new articulation of classical music’s place in popular culture. Disney Hall wants to occupy not the high periphery of American life but the center.
Gehry’s building is enjoying a mammoth wave of publicity, the like of which has not been seen in classical parts since Lenny partied with the Panthers on Park Avenue. My first reaction was of slightly disappointed déjà vu; if more of these silver-winged creations touch down in cities around the world, they will begin to resemble quarter-of-a-billion-dollar Hard Rock Cafés. But the exterior is only the beginning of the wonder of the place. Disney is not simply a piece of prize-worthy architecture; it is also a sensational place to hear music and an enchanting place to spend an evening. In richness of sound, it has few rivals on the international scene, and in terms of visual drama it may have no rival at all. Wherever you sit in the hall, from the front center rows to the high back balcony, the gracefully curving, Spanish-galleon lines of the interior arrange themselves in hypnotic perspectives, and the music seizes you from all sides. The painting-on-a-wall illusion shatters; the orchestra throngs the air.
Only a few thousand people have actually heard music in Disney, but Los Angeles has already taken the hall to heart. It was surprising to find such a vast, cosmopolitan city exhibiting such unanimous civic pride; it was as if a small town’s high-school football team had won the state championship. I walked into a Coffee Bean store downtown and heard a bunch of weathered union guys grousing over something that the Los Angeles Times had reported that morning—namely, that President Bush had failed to send a pro-forma greeting to the opening. Later, a friend and I went to the brutally hip Standard hotel for dinner, and when the valet-parking dudes saw our program books they peppered us with questions. “How did it sound?” they asked. “Did they play more Stravinsky? Did Esa-Pekka write something?”
These are the people that the L.A. Philharmonic wants to pull in, but few of them were at the opening galas. Instead, the hall was filled with remnants of old-money L.A. together with Hollywood élite from Michael Eisner down. All the glitter might have distracted even the most puritanical critical mind. I, for one, found it hard to concentrate on the semi-aleatory music of Witold Lutoslawski while looking over the shoulders of Dennis Hopper. The mounting dissonance had me thinking that the actor was about to hatch one of his evil-genius action-movie schemes. Another night, during a performance of Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna,” I became fixated on the putatively tragic figure of Gray Davis, California’s deposed governor. He seemed riveted by Ligeti’s ghostly cantus firmus; his head was cocked to one side, his gaze fixed on the undulant ceiling. He seemed to be undergoing a profound spiritual experience—at least, until he glanced at his watch. I looked for governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger, but he did not attend. Was he protesting the Philharmonic’s neglect of Austrian modernist composers, such as Beat Furrer and Roman Haubenstock-Ramati?
Salonen might easily have flattered his glamorous audience by loading up the gala programs with bonbons and warhorses. Instead, he chose to stage a comprehensive festival of twentieth- and twenty-first-century composition, with Bach, Gabrieli, and Mozart scattered here and there for novelty. The first program included “Lux Aeterna,” Ives’s “The Unanswered Question,” and “The Rite of Spring.” The second had Salonen’s “L.A. Variations,” Lutoslawski’s Cello Concerto (with an inspired Yo-Yo Ma), Silvestre Revueltas’s “Sensemayá,” and a John Adams première, “The Dharma at Big Sur.” The third gala surveyed Hollywood film scores, from Max Steiner’s “King Kong” to John Williams’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Williams shared conducting duties with Salonen and introduced his own new concert piece, “Soundings.” Audra McDonald, Josh Groban, and Brian Stokes Mitchell sang movie songs, the standout being David Raksin’s voluptuously moody “Laura.” Even on this night, Salonen set himself challenges. He conducted Bernard Herrmann’s neo-Wagnerian music for “Vertigo” as if it were a freestanding masterpiece, which, in fact, it is.
It bodes well for Salonen’s modernizing project that the second gala, the “difficult” one, attracted the most public interest. Salonen has been in Los Angeles for eleven years, and his combination of exacting musicianship and self-effacing charm has won him the trust of his audience. He has the freedom to do more or less whatever he wants, and he exercises that power without the preening pomposity that places so many star conductors on the hazy boundary between genius and fool. It makes no sense to call him “Maestro,” and he’d probably laugh if you did.
The first major test of Yasuhisa Toyota’s acoustical design came, appropriately, with “The Rite of Spring.” From the first notes of the bassoon, it was evident that the hall revealed everything. Solo voices in the orchestra rose up effortlessly and filled the entire space; each had body and color. When all instruments sounded at full volume, you experienced a composition out of Orson Welles: the big picture was clear, yet every detail was distinct. The hyperrhythmic climax of the “Procession of the Sage,” with its layering of two over three over four over six over eight over twelve, was a glorious overload of information, a CAT scan of Stravinsky’s brain. But the realism came at a price. Any imbalance in the orchestra immediately registered. The Philharmonic has a heavyweight brass section, while its strings favor a lean, tensile approach. The brass sometimes overwhelmed the strings and gave the ensemble a rasping edge. There were moments when the brightness of the sound became almost painful.
A similar problem cropped up during the première of “The Dharma at Big Sur.” Adams wrote the piece partly in tribute to the late Lou Harrison, who long preached the virtues of what is called “just intonation”—a system of tuning that retains the perfect integer ratios first measured by Pythagoras. In “Dharma,” Adams savored the eerie purity of Harrison’s tunings, slowing down harmonic movement to focus on shimmering major chords and shining octaves. An amplified violin, played by Tracy Silverman, wove an endless freewheeling melody that at times resembled a Jimi Hendrix solo. In the second half, “Sri Moonshine,” Adams honored another California master, the minimalist pioneer Terry Riley. Strand upon strand of sound accumulated into a gleefully chaotic mass, a pandemonium of joy. The trouble was that the amplification created such a buzz of echoes that the magic harmonies of the orchestra were sometimes completely blotted out.
John Williams, too, used a fusion of instruments and electronics, and in his case the orchestra worked out the balances. “Soundings” lacked the overarching logic of Adams’s piece, but it showed off the hallucinatory vividness of the hall’s acoustics. The high point was the entry of a very low, very loud electronic D. Williams, in an explanatory essay, said that this note represented the voice of the hall itself, responding to the orchestra’s invasion of its previously silent spaces. The composer must have been recalling the wonderful moment in his “Close Encounters” score when the alien spaceship responds in thunderous bass tones to a five-note musical greeting. If intended, the allusion was apt: Disney Hall as a vessel from another world, landing at the corner of First and Grand.
The gala noise of the opening weekend left me with the suspicion that Disney’s acoustics, for all their brilliance, lacked warmth and soul. I happily junked that theory after hearing the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields play a program of diehard classics—Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg, Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony, Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto—with Murray Perahia conducting from the piano. The ubiquitous Academy has given a lot of bland performances over the years, but in Disney it produced a sound of dreamlike fullness, giving the Beethoven one of those performances that make you say, “Right, that’s how the music goes.” Perahia was able to summon up all his usual refinement without ever straining to be heard. Evidently, Disney Hall will be a paradise not only for orchestras but for recitalists, chamber ensembles, and singers. In this respect, it may have an edge on Carnegie Hall, where small groups often get lost in the beautiful haze. What’s more, the sound remains intimate even in the highest balcony, as I discovered when I switched places at intermission. C 161, a thirty-dollar seat all the way in the back on the left, might actually have the best sound and the best view in the house.
The L.A. Philharmonic is a pumped-up virtuoso orchestra of a classic American kind, and it may be working too hard to shake the rafters. When it played in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, it had to project, throw its voice, to compensate for the dull acoustics. Disney, by contrast, rewards subtlety, understatement, unforced musicality. The hall is an incredibly sensitive beast that registers the slightest noise from performers and listeners alike. A dropped program book clatters like percussion, a slammed door booms like a bass drum. (Something needs to be done about the slamming doors.) Even a slight change in the layout of the orchestra is liable to make a difference in the sound. I wondered whether the perpetually pealing trumpets were positioned too high up on risers and too close to the wall. The risers make for a handsome picture, but the orchestra might achieve better balance if it were flat on the floor.
Then again, Salonen and his orchestra may know exactly what they’re doing with their aesthetic of raw power. A lot of people will be coming not to hear the music but to see Gehry’s design; the musicians have to reclaim center stage, make people forget that the hall is even there. One man told the Associated Press that he’d waited in line five hours to buy a ticket for Mahler’s Second Symphony but expected to take a nap once the music started. I wonder how much sleep he really got during Salonen’s wake-the-dead performance. Mahler himself once said, “If we want thousands to hear us in the huge auditoriums of our concert halls and opera houses, we simply have to make a lot of noise.” Inaugurating Disney, the L.A. Philharmonic proved beyond a doubt that an orchestra playing at full force remains the biggest sound on earth.