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The Soul of the Hall

As the Philharmonic's new home goes up, the critical job of ensuring good sound comes down to one man.

April 08, 2001|MARK SWED

With its twining skeleton rising dramatically downtown, Walt Disney Concert Hall is taking shape at last. For years, drawings and models of Frank O. Gehry's celebrated design have portended an architectural wonder for Los Angeles. Finally, all that promise has an imposing physical presence.

Even so, a concert hall is much more than real estate, structural steel and a burnished-wave exterior. Its true virtue is empty space-and the air that fills it. How well sound travels through that air will determine Disney Hall's ultimate success.

And for that there is only trust in the mysterious, ambiguous science of acoustics. Scale models and computer simulations can demonstrate the motion of sound waves, yet relatively few modern concert halls have stunning sound. Virtual reality cannot replicate the visceral sensation of sitting in a space and hearing it resound with real, unamplified music.

Which is why Yasuhisa Toyota, chief concert-hall acoustician of the Japanese firm Nagata Acoustics, has recently moved to Los Angeles from Tokyo. He has been at work on Disney Hall for more than a decade. Theories have been elaborated, plans drawn, experiments undertaken. Now he must make sure his plans are followed precisely, that nothing comes along at the last minute to derail them.

'The ceiling design has long been fixed, but not the holes for the lighting," he says, citing but one example of a potential problem. We are looking at a cutaway mock-up of the Disney interior at Gehry's office in Santa Monica. The 48-year-old acoustician-bearded, stylishly dressed, cheerful but intense-is concerned that the lights may suck up sound. He will compensate with three layers of glass, an acoustical seal, which will have to be applied just so.

"Very small things can affect the acoustics in a concert hall in a very big way," he warns.

There are so many very small things in the design of Disney Hall, the most architecturally complex concert hall ever attempted, that Toyota's ultimate assurance must wait until the Los Angeles Philharmonic plays its first rehearsal there in the summer of 2003. With a big laugh, Deborah Borda, the orchestra's general manager, suggests that she will gladly treat a critic to a first-class plane ticket to Paris on the day of the first Disney Hall tryout-anything to keep the press away from that nervous moment.

In fact, the Philharmonic doesn't appear overly worried about the sound of Disney Hall. Toyota is Japan's leading acoustician. He came to renown in 1986 with his design for Suntory Hall, Tokyo's premier concert space. His greatest achievement thus far is Sapporo Concert Hall, which opened in 1997 in the capital city of the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.

It is Kitara, as Sapporo has nicknamed its new hall (the made-up word, chosen by citywide competition, implies the name of a musical instrument), that has most successfully put Philharmonic officials' minds at relative ease. It shares Disney's acoustical design. Put the schematics for the interior of the two halls on top of one another and they reveal a close fit: the same general interior shape, seating layout and the theater's footprint.

In November, a Philharmonic delegation that included Borda, music director Esa-Pekka Salonen, stage manager Paul Geller and Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky flew to Sapporo to experience Kitara for themselves. I went along to observe.

"This is it," Borda whispered excitedly to Salonen upon being ushered into an orchestra rehearsal in the theater. "This is exactly Disney Hall!"

Kitara lacks Gehry's architectural exuberance and the complications of his fantastical design. But the broad layout of its plain, pleasantly minimalist space is recognizable if you've seen the models of Disney Hall. Kitara's curved birch walls exude airiness. There is no proscenium stage or balconies. The orchestra sits on risers almost at ground level, and islands of audience members surround the players in stepped-up tiers. Nearly every seat in the theater offers the sensation of direct contact with the musicians and the music.

The sound is utterly alive. Salonen describes it as clear yet very warm. "Usually in concert halls you have either clarity or the warmth-for both qualities to exist together is almost unique," he says, offering his enthusiastic first impression. "If we manage to build a hall that sounds as good, we will be very, very happy."

This response, widespread among musicians who have performed in Kitara (Simon Rattle, for example), pleases Toyota but does not lessen his concerns for Disney.

"There is always so much pressure when a concert hall opens," he says, "but the fact that this one is such important architecture and so important for Los Angeles makes even more pressure."

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