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Disney Hall's (Almost) Unfinished Symphony

August 31, 2003|Gail Eichenthal | Gail Eichenthal is a longtime host and producer of Los Angeles Philharmonic broadcasts on National Public Radio. An anchor and reporter for KNX-AM, she last wrote for the magazine about the death of KNX colleague Steve Smith.

May 15, 1987. We're a little more than halfway through the Los Angeles Philharmonic's 25-day, 18-concert, eight-country tour of Europe with then-music director Andre Previn. I'm filing daily "Letters from Europe" for my radio station back home, KUSC-FM.

As orchestra tour days go, it could hardly be more exhausting nor, ultimately, more embarrassing. We leave Monte Carlo at 8 a.m., boarding buses for the Nice Airport, where we hop a jet to Brussels. Then it's another bus ride to the Festival of Flanders in Ghent, normally 30 minutes away. But a pileup on the major highway for this Belgian waffle-sized country stretches the trip to two hours. The musicians arrive an hour late, forcing cancellation of the first work on the program, John Harbison's First Symphony, a local premiere.

Thirteen hours of travel, then an hour late to their own concert. But here was the amazing part: The musicians were in fine spirits throughout the long afternoon. At one point on the road to Ghent, we passed a town with the memorable name of Aase. As I turned my head to look, David Weiss, principal oboe, leaned over and said, "Gail, that's Aase backwards." This led to a straight hour of bad Aase puns and shrieks of laughter.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday September 05, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Downtown church -- An article in Sunday's Los Angeles Times Magazine about the Los Angeles Philharmonic's long wait for a new home incorrectly stated that Philharmonic Auditorium at the northeast corner of 5th and Olive streets was a Methodist church. The building was the home of Temple Baptist Church.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 21, 2003 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 4 Lat Magazine Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
The article "Disney Hall's (Almost) Unfinished Symphony" (Aug. 31) incorrectly stated that Philharmonic Auditorium at the northeast corner of 5th and Olive streets was a Methodist church. The building was the home of Temple Baptist Church.

The reason for all this good cheer? That morning the orchestra's general manager, Robert Harth, announced out of the clear blue Mediterranean sky that Lillian Disney, widow of Walt, was donating $50 million for a new concert hall. It will be the first real home for the orchestra, and is scheduled to be completed in the fall of 1992.

"When the announcement was made there was a spontaneous cheer from the whole orchestra," recalls Kazue Asawa McGregor, the orchestra's longtime librarian. "It was like a party." That party spirit carried us through that endless day of travel, not a bad metaphor for the epic wait on which we were about to embark, the wait for the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

It's true the Los Angeles Philharmonic has not exactly been homeless since its founding in 1919 by William Andrews Clark Jr., heir to an Arizona copper fortune, a senator's son, bibliophile, amateur violinist and, most pertinently, multimillionaire. But the Philharmonic has never resided in a building designed specifically for orchestral performance.

Thanks to Clark, who spent at least $3 million on his extravagant musical hobby, the Philharmonic Orchestra of Los Angeles gave its first performance to a capacity audience of 2,400 at Trinity Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles on Oct. 24, 1919. The conductor was Walter Henry Rothwell, whom Clark had lured from the St. Paul Symphony Orchestra. The following season, the orchestra moved to Philharmonic Auditorium at Pershing Square, actually a Methodist Church on the northeast corner of 5th and Olive. This was "home" for the next 44 years.

"It didn't sound bad," says Philharmonic principal bassoon David Breidenthal, who this fall begins his 42nd season with the orchestra. "But there was one men's bathroom, one women's bathroom. No place to even store your instrument."

"The facilities were terrible," says Irving Geller, a principal violinist with the orchestra for 48 years until his retirement in 1999. "If we ever had a break, we hung out in the basement or walked around outside."

Like many players of the era, he remembers with fondness concerts led by the Dutch conductor Eduard van Beinum, beloved music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1956 to 1959. "The sound he got out of the orchestra even in Philharmonic Auditorium was unbelievable," Geller says. "The musicians played their hearts out for him."

Van Beinum died on the podium at 58 while leading a performance by his other orchestra, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw.

The Philharmonic embarked on its first international tour in 1956, under the auspices of the U.S. State Department, and accommodations were none too homey. In the demilitarized zone on the border between North and South Korea, they played for U.S. troops and slept in Army barracks the musicians affectionately called Fort Wallenstein, a tribute to tour conductor Alfred Wallenstein, the orchestra's music director from 1943 to 1956. Geller remembers that on one of the propeller planes the musicians sat unsecured along the walls of the aircraft.

"But thinking back, it was great," he says. For a musician who earned $100 a week and played only 24 weeks a year, it was a way to see the world. In those days, the musicians couldn't live solely on their orchestra wages, so many freelanced or earned money working nonmusical jobs.

By the time the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion opened in 1964, the dazzling Bombay-born Zubin Mehta's third season as music director, the players were making comfortable incomes and performing year-round. Still, they had no home of their own.

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