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Sculpting the sound

As an intimate space comes to life, the L.A. Philharmonic and acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota attune their ears -- and then relax.

October 19, 2003|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Early last month, at the end of a Los Angeles Philharmonic rehearsal in the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the atmosphere was unusually lighthearted. Deborah Borda, the orchestra's general manager, took me aside to show me something. Workmen were finishing the final details, and every day there was another new one. "Look at our latest addition," she said, pointing to mousetraps under some of the seats.

That major construction would rouse a few rodents was to be expected. But Borda was hardly unaware of the symbolism. The Times had just run an article about a prickly backlash to the love affair brewing between Los Angeles and its stellar new building, and one angry performance artist had proposed burning a certain iconic mouse in effigy out front on opening night Thursday.

"They're actually very tiny and cute," Borda said, laughing off the uninvited visitors. "They don't look anything like Mickey."

Yasuhisa Toyota, the hall's cryptic acoustician -- who doesn't like to reveal too many trade secrets -- then suggested that I had just discovered one secret.

"They are not mousetraps," he quipped. "They're sound traps."

Such kidding around was a sign that a major hurdle -- in fact, the major nervous-making hurdle -- had been cleared. The orchestra had had a number of opportunities to try out the building over the previous two months, and no one any longer was even faintly worried about the acoustics. That mousetrap day was the first time Mahler had been played in the hall, and his First Symphony had sounded so alluringly rich, colorful and thrillingly immediate that it had put everybody in an excellent mood.

This was a significantly more relaxed attitude than what I encountered when I first asked to observe the hall's tuning process. Every concert hall requires a period of adjustment. Acousticians typically allow for the last-minute addition of dampening material if a hall proves too bright or of reflecting surfaces if there are dead spots. Some of today's more technology-inclined acousticians design movable walls and sound chambers so that, with the touch of a button, the reverberation time, or echo, can change between the extremes of a dry chamber music venue and a booming church. Orchestras must learn to play in any new room, and that takes practice.

The first impression will, Toyota contends, always be the worst. If you don't know what to listen for -- and sometimes even if you do -- you can't initially tell what a hall will ultimately sound like. With everything on the line -- for Disney Hall to be Frank Gehry's architectural masterpiece, it also has to be Toyota's acoustical masterpiece -- that first contact between the orchestra and its new home, the Philharmonic insisted, had to be an intimate affair.

Indeed, three years earlier, when I initially suggested that, however private, such a moment was also historic and should be documented, Borda countered with the offer of a first-class plane ticket to Paris. She wasn't serious, of course, but that did indicate roughly the number of miles from the hall she felt the press belonged.

As time passed, the Philharmonic made some critical decisions. Believing that the hall would be finished by spring 2003, it postponed the opening until the fall so that it would have the summer to undertake the tuning process. Fresh in its mind was the fiasco that resulted when the Philadelphia Orchestra was forced to open Verizon Hall in fall 2001 months before construction was complete. Only after 18 months of performing in Verizon, an adjustable hall, did that orchestra feel happy with the acoustical settings.

Unusual exposure

Given the extraordinary international interest in Gehry and the architect's underlying philosophy that Disney be a welcoming, open venue for the city, the Philharmonic ultimately, if not exactly readily, agreed to risk an unusual amount of exposure and allow me into all its tuning rehearsals -- nearly two dozen, as it turned out. Only the orchestra's first hour in the hall would be off limits. This would be a rare opportunity to report on the arcane science of acoustics.

After more than three months of rehearsals, however, what has been altered in the hall can be summarized in two words: hardly anything.

"We've been very conservative," music director Esa-Pekka Salonen said a week ago before leading a public rehearsal. "The basic quality is so good, I would hate to mess it up."

Toyota's standard response to the question of what he has been doing at rehearsals is, "Nothing at all." He is always there, and always listening. But he takes no notes. His only equipment is a small digital camera that he carries everywhere.

And yet, there was a striking change between the way the orchestra sounded at its first rehearsal and at its second, three weeks later.

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