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The Salonen-Gehry Axis

The Los Angeles Philharmonic Has Arrived at a Rare Confluence of Musical Distinction and Visionary Architecture

August 31, 2003|Mark Swed | Mark Swed is The Times' music critic.

For three nights in October, the Los Angeles Philharmonic will get the kind of exposure orchestras dream of, but rarely--if ever--receive. Fewer than 7,000 people will attend the three gala concerts that open the Walt Disney Concert Hall, but the orchestra will be on an international stage: Frank Gehry's extraordinary building has captured the world's attention.

In 1987, Lillian Disney, Walt's widow, gave the Philharmonic $50 million to build a new concert hall because the orchestra, unhappy with the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion's dead sound, needed something better. The musicians' requirements and collective personality helped inspire Gehry's radical design. But with the building being hailed as the successor to the architect's celebrated Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and as a driving force for the redevelopment of downtown, Disney Hall will make a major impact on Los Angeles independent of the Philharmonic. Gehry's architecture put Bilbao on the map, not the art on the museum walls. The Sydney Opera House has lousy acoustics, and its resident opera company and symphony orchestra are not first rate, but that building--dramatically sweeping out into the harbor--is second only to the kangaroo as a symbol for Australia.

Suddenly the situation for the Philharmonic has turned around. The question is no longer whether the hall can serve the musicians, but whether the musicians can serve the hall. Audiences for symphonic music are aging and dwindling. Across the nation, orchestra debts are on the rise, and a couple have folded. Art forms are not immortal. The death knell, some suggest, has begun for the symphony orchestra as a product of 19th and early 20th century Eurocentric culture.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday September 05, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
L.A. Philharmonic -- An article in Sunday's Los Angeles Times Magazine about the Los Angeles Philharmonic's move to the new Walt Disney Concert Hall, incorrectly stated that conductor Georg Solti never conducted the orchestra. He guest conducted the L.A. Philharmonic in the 1950s.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 21, 2003 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 4 Lat Magazine Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
The article "The Salonen-Gehry Axis" (Aug. 31) incorrectly stated that conductor Georg Solti never conducted the L.A. Philharmonic. He guest conducted the orchestra in the 1950s.

No one orchestra can solely turn the tide, and orchestras are far from dead or irrelevant just yet. But change is in the air, and the L.A. Philharmonic, which has a feisty and sometimes sensationalist history of staking out its high-culture territory in the entertainment capital of the world, has designs on being the band of the future. Under Esa-Pekka Salonen, it has become America's most arresting orchestra. Moving into its new hall and polishing its futurist image as a venturesome ensemble with a hip, vibrant music director, the Los Angeles Philharmonic envisions itself the savior of the symphony.

The symphony orchestra is, indeed, still with us. Most cities of any size have at least one, and impressively large numbers of listeners hear them every week. Fifty years ago, a time nostalgically remembered as a Golden Age for the orchestra, there were only a handful that really mattered. Called the "Big Five," the orchestras of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Chicago lorded over the rest. They had the biggest budgets, hired the best players, had the most impressive histories, attracted the most famous conductors, occupied prime real estate in the country's most important centers of culture and dominated American classical music. Now there is considerably more competition.

Today the Los Angeles Philharmonic's budget of about $57 million is second in America only to the Boston Symphony. East Coast orchestras envy the excitement generated by Salonen in Los Angeles. And excellent players can be found just about anywhere. A good night in Atlanta, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Baltimore, Houston or Minnesota can be more rewarding than an average night with one of the old "Big Five."

Under ideal circumstances--the right music and conductor, proper acoustics and ambience, enough rehearsal time--the Los Angeles Philharmonic is a great orchestra. The only problem is that L.A. audiences don't know it. The Chandler sucks up bass and gives the impression of slowing down the speed of sound. Amplification at the Hollywood Bowl robs the orchestra's sound of its physical presence--that's the aural equivalent of carrots left in the microwave until they turn limp. They sizzle, but that's all they do.

The turning point in the Philharmonic's path to its new home came in 1996, when Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic traveled to Paris to play Stravinsky, whom the French think of as one of their own. So do Angelenos. It was as a young Russian emigre in Paris during the second decade of the 20th century that he had his breakthrough with three ballets: "The Firebird," "Petrushka" and, most importantly, "The Rite of Spring." French became Stravinsky's adopted language and culture. But the composer moved on, fleeing World War II Europe, and he ended up living longer in Los Angeles than any other city.

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