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A Bunker Hill duet

The devil was in the details, architect Frank Gehry and music director Esa-Pekka Salonen agree as they lead a tour of their new creation.

October 19, 2003|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

On a Saturday afternoon, a few weeks from the official opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, people with television cameras attached to their shoulders are steering Frank Gehry from the Founders Room to the main entrance. Graciously, Gehry allows himself to be steered -- but at his own pace; he knows the way, after all.

Like nervous birds, publicists dart up to him to inform him of the next interview on the agenda. "We'll bring Esa-Pekka out to you," one of them says as the television crew draws the architect outside for an exterior shot. "Esa-Pekka?" Gehry replies with a perfectly straight face, "who's Esa-Pekka?"

Disney Hall, which opens officially Thursday, was built on many personal relationships, but it's difficult to imagine that any two names will be as closely, and permanently, linked with the landmark and each other as Frank Gehry and Philharmonic music director Esa-Pekka Salonen. For years, they have been working together on the building's design and functionality, their give and take becoming even more intense as the opening drew closer.

"The most important collaboration was the stage," Salonen says. "How the orchestra was seated, how the risers are positioned."

"It's hard to remember everything," says Gehry, again with the deadpan face, "but I do know we've spent a lot of time together."

"With very good memories, and vodka," Salonen adds, laughing.

On a walking tour of the building that has consumed them for so long, the men radiate mutual admiration and almost competitive deference. "He is just terrific, I just love him," Gehry says at one point when Salonen is out of earshot, sounding for all the world like a friendly uncle pressing a favored suitor. "This is so Frank Gehry," Salonen says repeatedly, pointing to a cascade of natural light or a curving wall revealing the surprise of even more space.

After all these years, and all that drama, their friendship appears as vivid and accessible as the hall itself.

Standing at the top of the stairs leading up from Grand Avenue, in the gleaming embrace of the hall's main entrance, Gehry considers for a moment his favorite method of viewing his latest creation.

"I like to walk around and look at it from the streets," he says, "seeing it like a flower between the buildings. You don't see the whole of it, you see flecks of it.

"The doors on Grand will be open during the day," he adds. This seems for a moment like a bit of a non sequitur, but it isn't -- one of Gehry's overriding goals is to get people into his building, to create many points of entry, both physically and psychically. "This main entrance is more formal, for special events and parties, but these steps are made for people to sit on with their lunches, with brown bags."

"That's what sets this building apart from almost every other concert hall, its openness," Salonen says. "And that has been Frank's ideological position from Day One. Doors open during the day, access to garden -- it's very unique."

For Salonen, the hall's architectural accessibility is even more important for what it symbolizes. Visitors to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion were confronted with a facade visible only "if you went like this," he says, tilting his head and shoulders back. "Which is a bad message. Like worship or something."

Many people, he says, wrongly associate symphonic music with upper-class attitudes and requirements. "That you have to dress in a certain way and behave in a certain way."

Disney Hall may be dazzling, but with its cafes, gardens and tantalizing funhouse of public walkways, it will, Salonen hopes, tempt and accommodate all sorts of people. "You walk in, you hang around, and you might hear some music, just accidentally, in the foyer or the children's amphitheater," he says. "And then, we hope, the next step to go to the box office and buy a ticket will be a mere formality."

"The idea of having CalArts here was in Esa-Pekka's mind since the beginning," adds Gehry, referring to the Roy and Edna Disney/Cal Arts Theater.

As the two head indoors, raised voices from the street breach the barriers at the bottom of the steps.

"Mr. Gehry, Mr. Gehry." Mr. Gehry turns. "Mr. Gehry," two young men shout, raising thumbs-up high in the air, "right on."

Mr. Gehry laughs and waves. "Thanks," he says and pushes open the door.

Through the main entrance, one steps into what is now called a preconcert space. "We really wanted a room for chamber concerts," he says, "but we couldn't afford it, so we designed a room that at some point could be retrofitted for chamber music."

As with much of Gehry's work, the word "room" doesn't really fit; instead it is a rounded space with the warm wood walls moving up and in like giant clam shells.

Salonen has already tested the space for sound, and walking into the cave formed by the sloping walls, he motions to the two areas where the musicians might be positioned, a bit like a new homeowner pointing out placement possibilities for the prized antique desk. Gehry hangs back, watching him.

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