Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Disney Hall looks like music's future

Disney Hall looks like music's future
The view from behind the orchestra in Los Angeles

By Mary Ellyn Hutton
Cincinnati Post, April 18,2006

Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Frank Gehry-designed home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was completed in 2003 at a cost of $274 million. Its 2,265 seats surround the stage, giving audiences a dramatic variety of vantage points to watch concerts.

Cincinnati Pops conductor Erich Kunzel said it best. In a 1990 interview with The Post, Kunzel addressed the way symphony concerts are presented. "What is the great thing to observe about a symphony conductor? Certainly not his rear end."

That image, however -- coattails and arms waving at a secret society of musicians on a plane elevated from the rest of us -- is what most people see in the concert hall, including in Cincinnati's 3,517-seat Music Hall. The problem can also be intensified by poor sight lines and listeners' average distance from the stage.

Most new concert halls, including some of the best in the world, provide a more inviting experience, including seating at the sides and behind orchestra. One of them is Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, the 2,265-seat home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Completed in 2003 at a cost of $274 million, the stainless steel-wrapped landmark is already an icon for the city (Cindy Crawford recently shot a bra commercial there, according to Bloomberg.com).

Designed by architect Frank Gehry to suggest billowing sails, it succeeded the larger, multi-purpose Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (3,200 seats) as the orchestra's performance venue. (Gehry, architect of the famed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, also designed the University of Cincinnati's Vontz Center for Molecular Studies at Eden Avenue and Martin Luther King Drive.)

On a recent visit to the West Coast, I observed Cincinnati Symphony music director Paavo Järvi rehearse and guest conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Disney Hall. I did so from four different vantage points: in front of the orchestra, on the side, from the top tier of seats and, reversing what most people see in the concert hall, behind the orchestra.

There are no bad seats in Disney Hall.

Seats are arranged in ascending rows on all sides. The stage, though not centrally located (the conductor's podium is, they say) is "in the same room" with the audience, rather than on a proscenium stage at one end. The feeling of intimacy and warmth is enhanced by Douglas fir paneling on the walls and ceiling. The 109-rank pipe organ situated in the space behind the orchestra is an arresting sight, its wood-enclosed pipes standing askew like huge matchsticks.

Adding a touch of awe are skylights and a huge rear window flanked by wooden "sails," which not only let light in, but make the building's metal skin glow after dark, eliminating the need for exterior floodlights.

Sitting behind the orchestra is an experience "as intense, if not more so than other parts of the hall," says Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Esa-Pekka Salonen in a taped audio tour provided to visitors to the building. "The way we hear is not immune to the other senses."

Performing in Dorothy Chandler (a proscenium theater like Music Hall) was "slightly depressing," said former Los Angeles executive director Ernest Fleischman. "We never felt enveloped by the sound."

If that sounds similar to what Järvi has been saying lately about Music Hall, it's no coincidence. He and Finnish-born Salonen are good friends, and Järvi's brother Kristjan was assistant conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1999-2002.

Sitting behind the orchestra, where you can watch the players and actually see the conductor's face, may be thought of as a kind of violation of the inner sanctum, but that is something the classical music world desperately needs.

Said Kunzel in 1990: "We shouldn't treat the orchestra and the people who go to it the same way we did 100 years ago."

If that means watching the conductors and the players "sweat," so be it, he said. "I love that big screen up in Riverfront Stadium (the Reds' home at the time). You can see close plays. You can see everything you can't see in the stadium because you're so far away." (In 1992, the CSO became the first orchestra in the nation to use video screens during an adult subscription concert, then abandoned the project.)

From my vantage point behind the Los Angeles Philharmonic, I could watch how the players handled their instruments, what they did during rests (rest usually) and, theoretically at least (if I had brought binoculars), read their music.

As for Järvi, it was fun to see what the players saw and how they responded to his directions.

Järvi is all-business in rehearsal, all energy during concerts. He often smiles for reinforcement and provides numerous signals unseen by the audience - a hand on his heart, tapping his finger on the baton to set a tempo, taking anticipatory breaths before downbeats.

Conductors do not make the sound. Seeing as well as hearing is believing.

The concert April 6 in Los Angeles was all-Rachmaninoff, including his Symphony No. 2, a piece Järvi will perform and record with the CSO later this month.

Interestingly for the nation's second largest metropolitan area (16 million in Los Angeles compared with 1.9 million for Cincinnati), the hall was not full. There were scattered empty seats and the upper level furthest from the stage was closed off.

The Music Hall audience on a good night, such as April 8's all-Mozart concert with CSO guest conductor Jaime Laredo and the majority of Jarvi's concerts here, could easily match it.

As the CSO moves closer to addressing the issue of what some consider its oversized hall, Los Angeles' experience and its new, "downsized" hall stands as a kind of Cinderella's castle example.

The cost, of course, was fantastic. Lillian Disney (Walt Disney's widow) gave $50 million in 1987 to spearhead the project. Faced with cost overruns that threatened to swamp the project, she and other members of the Disney family later kicked in twice that amount, with the balance from a broad-based coalition of state and local government, corporate, foundation and private giving.|

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