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Leaving Dorothy

An older, wiser Esa-Pekka Salonen looks back at some fond moments as he and the L.A. Philharmonic plan to exit the Chandler Pavilion.

May 04, 2003|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

Esa-Pekka Salonen, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is standing at the crossroads -- literally. With a Philharmonic publicist occasionally darting in to repair the effects of the wind on his light brown hair, Salonen is gamely enduring a photo shoot at the corner of 1st Street and Grand Avenue, where his past is about to meet his future.

The downtown location is more than a little symbolic for the 44-year-old Finnish conductor. From this corner, he can see the Music Center's Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, stately and symmetrical, the home of the orchestra for nearly 40 years. And across the street, he can see the loopy, contemporary roller-coaster curves of Walt Disney Concert Hall, designed by Frank Gehry and soon to become the Philharmonic's new home.

From any angle, the new Disney Hall is grand. But here at the corner of 1st and Grand, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion -- with its queenly portrait of Music Center founder Dorothy Buffum Chandler forever reigning inside in the Founders Room -- remains, well, first.

The Phil performs its last concert at the Chandler on May 25. And Salonen, who began his tenure as the Philharmonic's music director on its stage in 1992, has agreed to reflect on what an old hall can mean to a young conductor.

As it turns out, it can mean a lot.

"I'm absolutely certain that when the date comes -- now, soon -- it won't be as easy as we think it will be," Salonen says. "There will be the sense of a particular chapter in everybody's life being closed, irreversibly, and that alone is an emotional moment."

Salonen responds with mock horror when asked whether the portrait of the hall's namesake, Dorothy Chandler, will move from the Founders Room of Chandler Pavilion to the new Founders Room in Disney Hall (it won't). "We'll have to talk about that; I won't go anywhere without her," he exclaims.

She's a lady from another era, the Chandler Pavilion. Completed in 1964, with 90-foot columns, crystal chandeliers and white marble, mirror and glass interiors. And today, standing so close to Disney Hall -- no right angles, no rules, and insolently gleaming -- the Chandler is looking more than usually frumpy.

Symphony watchers all know why the Phil is moving out of the Chandler: bad acoustics. Well, not bad, exactly, but all wrong for symphonic music. Built as a multipurpose facility, the Chandler's proscenium stage distances the audience from the orchestra. And with 3,086 seats, it's just too big, nearly 1,000 seats above the ideal of 2,000 to 2,500.

"There seems to be an absolute limit to the size of a concert hall beyond which you cannot go if you want to create that sort of intense, visceral experience," Salonen says.

And, he adds, the movable walls that create the orchestra shell at the Chandler are too thin to provide the right acoustics, especially when it comes to bass response.

Bass dominates. At a rock concert the treble speakers are tiny, and the subwoofer responsible for projecting bass tones is as big as your sofa, Salonen points out. At the Chandler, bass sounds don't bounce off the walls, they just shake them. "The energy of the bass notes is spent on moving the wall," Salonen says, "instead of moving the audience."

Great. Not only is the Chandler Pavilion middle-aged, it's got no subwoofer. But as Salonen makes his way back to the older building -- dodging construction on Grand Avenue -- he speaks with great affection about the hall in which he launched his Los Angeles career. Even while the Chandler's flimsy auditorium walls don't ... woof properly, Salonen observes, "There is the more metaphysical aspect of all those wonderful notes that have varnished the wood paneling over the years. All of those great performances from Heifetz to Giulini live on somewhere in the molecular structure of the wood paneling, yes?"

Salonen is also generous when it comes to the architectural differences between the Chandler Pavilion and Disney Hall. The older building isn't dated, he says; it's retro. "Things go in cycles, and certain things that are thought of as being kind of outdated and old-fashioned and sort of hopeless, they come back," he says.

Salonen conducts his last Philharmonic concert at the Chandler next Sunday: Mahler's Third Symphony, which is also the first piece he led as music director of the Phil. (That's not the last Phil/Chandler concert though. Salonen wanted to include Pierre Boulez as guest conductor, and the last two weeks of the orchestra's season best accommodated Boulez's schedule.)

Back in his dressing room at the Chandler, Salonen says the personal highlights of his conducting career do not necessarily coincide with the major events that draw attention from the press. Those might include such critically acclaimed events as the orchestra's Ligeti and Stravinsky festivals, the premiere of Salonen's own composition, "LA Variations," in 1997, or the staging of John Adams' "El Nino" in March, directed by Peter Sellars.

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