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And they're off

Hundreds of musicians, workers and planners pull together in the homestretch of Disney Hall's debut.

October 24, 2003|Janet Eastman | Times Staff Writer

Yo-Yo ma, sans cello, waited outside an elevator to be escorted to a camera crew filming inside the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Near him was an electrician in a hard hat on a mission to fix a light over the new stage, along with a contractor chewing on a stubby, burnt-out cigar who needed to lay carpet for a party in the garden.

No one around seemed interested in this unlikely trio, though. Numerous such scenes were playing out in the potentially perilous 24 hours before the hall's gala opening Thursday night. As musicians maneuvered around work crews, bigwigs and small fry alike boasted about how great everything was going, but most everyone riding high on the launch of L.A.'s latest landmark was sleep-deprived.

Architect Frank Gehry has said he designed the space of glass and gleaming metal so everyone would feel invited. The day before the first patrons could take him up on his offer, an egalitarian spirit prevailed among the hundreds of people working while the hours counted down.

In the same structure where music director Esa-Pekka Salonen was rehearsing the Los Angeles Philharmonic in its new home, 350 members of the international media were interviewing anyone with a badge. Building inspectors flew up escalators in search of a problem. Caterers plotted table settings one more time. Broadcast crews camped out in lobbies.

Yet "there were few conflicts of turf or agendas," said Wayne Baruch, executive producer of a telecast on the hall that will air on PBS' "Great Performances" Wednesday.

The TV program will include behind-the-scenes moments and discussions with Ma, Gehry, Salonen, acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota and philanthropist Diane Disney Miller, the daughter of Walt and Lillian Disney, whose family donated about $112 million to the hall.

Chuck Grayton, Baruch's partner, tested pyrotechnics and 70,000-watt light cannons for four months to get the right effect on the hall's wavy walls Thursday night.

As the thermometer skyrocketed the day before, Deborah Borda, president of the Phil, said not even the sizzling heat wave and a transit strike could dampen "the exuberance." Ma hugged most of the orchestra before rehearsing Witold Lutoslawski's Cello Concerto for Friday's gala. "I'm happy to be here," he said, adding later, "It is spectacular -- and I've been in a lot of halls. I think it pleases everybody."

Ginny Mancini, the gala chairwoman, looked comfortable sitting in a folding chair in the scorching sun as the public relations staff demonstrated how arriving dignitaries would be greeted on the red carpet. Even Gehry, now heralded as the greatest American architect, proved he was no snob. He spoke to journalists from the Toronto Star, Brazil's Veja magazine and USC's student newspaper, the Daily Trojan.

Naysayers had said the structure, twisted and pulled into nontraditional shapes in his mind and in computers, could never be built. Now that it has been, L.A. Phil and Master Chorale performances are selling out. And musical luminaries are coming to play in the hall as if in kinship with its dazzling surfaces.

"We normally had just one program a week at [former home Dorothy] Chandler Pavilion," said Ed Yim, the Phil's director of artistic planning , whose job is to keep the artists happy. "But Yo-Yo's here, [composer] John Adams is here, [violinist] Tracy Silverman's here. [Pianist] Evgeny Kissin's coming in soon. The pace of life is a lot different. It's an amazing collection of individuals to be in one place at one time."

As he spoke, other orchestra staffers were swigging Diet Cokes, flipping through thick binders and racing down winding hallways. But despite the deadlines and the bustling around, there was a sense that everything would be fine. After conducting the first of two rehearsals, Salonen said, "Today is surprisingly normal-feeling. I don't know why. But there hasn't been a normal day for a long time."

Grace under pressure

The staff stayed linked by sometimes temperamental cell phones, squawking two-way radios, note-stuffed clipboards and a smile-through-it-all attitude. Among their challenges: The imminent influx of thousands of ticket holders needing to be led to their seats. A block-long party tent whose interior hit 130 degrees in the sun -- hot enough to put a piano out of tune and evaporate a serving crew. And, perhaps, celebrities gridlocked inside their limos amid street closures waiting to ensnare workers on urgent errands.

After years of working on the $274-million showcase and months of detailed planning meetings where California Pizza Kitchen boxes stacked up like filing cabinets, the crew seemed up to the task. Phil production director Paul Geller did, however, question an assistant on where his lunch had come from. "DWP? Oh, the Department of Water and Power," he said, acknowledging the building up the street, then observing: "You know you've eaten too much [takeout] when you want to go to DWP."

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