As word leaked out over the summer about the excellence of the Disney acoustics, Toyota's renown grew accordingly. Toyota is the leading practitioner of what is known as the vineyard style. Inspired by the Philharmonie in Berlin, where the audience sits in pavilions surrounding the orchestra, he designed the acoustics for two splendid theaters in Japan, the well-known Suntory and the newer and much-celebrated Kitara in Sapporo. Indeed, at the beginning of October, Kansas City announced that it had hired him to design the acoustics for a performing arts center that will be designed by Boston-based architect Moishe Safdie. In so doing, it dropped Russell Johnson, America's best-known acoustician and an advocate of the adjustable model, who was the acoustician for Verizon in Philadelphia and will be responsible for the new concert hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.
At one rehearsal, I ran into Ernest Fleischmann, the longtime Philharmonic general manager who shepherded Disney Hall through its many crises over 17 years, and asked him whether Johnson had been a candidate during the selection process for Disney. He replied that nothing made him prouder than having hired Toyota.
Toyota can be deceptive about just how much he knows and how much he does. Again and again, he told me that he had done nothing to Disney Hall since the first rehearsal. The most he would admit to since the end of construction was the addition of a few sound-absorbing panels high on the side walls. That came about after the first echo tests with some brass and percussion players and was meant to dampen -- ever so subtly -- sharp, fast percussive sounds. The panels went up before the orchestra played in the hall and were visible for two months. Subsequently, Gehry designed grillwork to conceal them.
Only after persistent questioning did Toyota finally admit that there is one more, slight change in the works. He will have a thin plywood panel installed behind the grille on stage right to liven up a dead spot in the far corner where the piano sits. Salonen requested a panel on the other side as well to help the trombones project over the trumpets, which sit in front of them. But in the end, that was determined to be a matter more of instrumental balance than of acoustics.
The other changes have been Salonen's. The stage is on hydraulic lifts, and he has had it lowered 2 or 3 inches to tone down the woodwinds slightly. At one rehearsal, Salonen moved the violas to the lip of the stage, where the cellos usually sit, so that they could be more prominent. He liked the effect, and after the rehearsal I overheard him ask Borda and Toyota what they thought. Toyota said little, but Borda, though a former viola player, said she was so enamored of all the bass in the hall, she loved having the cellos on the outside and letting them rip. Salonen says he will continue to experiment.
The rehearsal schedule throughout the summer seemed somewhat haphazard. At the end of July and the beginning of August, Salonen had four rehearsals of his Hollywood Bowl programs, which meant that the orchestra paraded back and forth between the extremes of Disney's intimate, animated natural acoustics and the huge amplified amphitheater. Later in August, after the orchestra returned from appearing at the Edinburgh Festival, it resumed its Disney-Bowl back-and-forthing on an occasional basis with Salonen and also the Philharmonic's assistant conductor, Yasuo Shinozaki.
The most notable occasions were Shinozaki's rehearsal of Mahler's First and Salonen's run-through of Beethoven's Ninth. They were like hearing these overly familiar scores for the first time. Disney is an airy space, and the music seemed to float. At the same time, it had enormous physical impact. Instrumental colors proved indescribably beautiful.
As a concert-goer, I try to subscribe to John Cage's motto that every seat is the best in the house -- the world is an excellent place, so be happy where you are. During these rehearsals, I became a wanderer. There were differences from place to place. The sound is louder down front. Behind the stage, the instruments you are sitting closest to stand out the most. High up, the sound takes on a spacious luminosity, and the view is spectacular. I found no favorite locations, no sweet spots.
By October, one test remained. The rehearsals had been closed to all but staff members and a few invited guests. One day, Giorgio Armani and his entourage toured the hall, but I didn't see the designer at the rehearsal. When in town, Gehry could often be found in the audience, always asking how I thought the hall sounded. Stage director Peter Sellars and video artist Bill Viola showed up for the Beethoven Ninth.
But who knew what would happen when 2,265 sound-absorbing bodies were added? The seats are padded with material meant to mimic that absorption, yet that can only be approximate.