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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Now comes the true test

With the celebrities gone and the galas over, the L.A. Phil can settle in to its highly hailed new home.

October 29, 2003|Mark Swed

The Los Angeles Philharmonic opened the Walt Disney Concert Hall last week as though it meant it. That is a more striking notion than you might imagine. Concert hall openings are, not infrequently, debacles. These are complex buildings, and they are rarely ready in time. Acoustical issues, ranging from tuning the hall to learning to play in a new environment, always take time -- sometimes years -- to address.

Tickets for the inevitable opening-night fund-raisers cost thousands of dollars, and the temptation is to treat the rich and famous as if they were musical children. When the New Jersey Performing Arts Center opened a few years ago, for instance, the first night on stage was a mix of pop crooning, symphonic bon bons and fancy dancing. It was embarrassing, and it sounded terrible because the orchestra shell wasn't installed.

After a while, you learn that first impressions in this business are never to be trusted. I'm told audiences in Newark are now very happy with their hall. So are Philadelphians with Verizon Hall: It had a troubled opening two years ago but, after a long, painful and expensive period of acoustical adjustment, it is a fine place to hear music.

Disney is different. When a building becomes an international sensation before it opens, when a press corps more than 300 strong descends upon its coming-out party, first impressions take on considerable weight. Disney is so stunning that it has been inspiring sexual metaphors. That's a further worry, since here is another activity where first nights are not always the best. Disney may be a head-turner, but we need time to get to know each other.

The first two of the three Philharmonic galas were uncompromisingly venturesome and inventive, the orchestra determined to show that under Esa-Pekka Salonen it and Frank Gehry's startling architecture belong to each other.

Artistic standards were lowered a notch or two for the third night, the Hollywood gala, but it was not nearly as objectionable as it might have been. Yes, musical security was lax, and Josh Groban slipped through the door, but he only got away with a single earnestly warbled-through song. Overall that night, there was an agreeable mix of spectacle, sentiment and sly humor on a program that could teach the entertainment industry a thing or two about entertainment.

Disney Hall was ready, and it performed splendidly, the worst hitch being fixable problems with the amplification system; they have nothing to do with acoustics. Hearing the hall from several different vantage points, and getting the responses from colleagues, I discovered greater differences in sonic perspective around the hall than I had sensed during the summer rehearsals. But much of this was also due to the first-night syndrome, where the novelty factor makes any kind of studied listening out of the question.

Some colleagues took a strong dislike to being seated too high, too far in the back. Yet they also told me that at the first gala, when the Los Angeles Master Chorale sang the ethereal harmonies of Ligeti's "Lux Aeterna," the effect was magical. I was sitting downstairs close to the singers and got none of the blend. One critic insisted that he found serious problems sitting next to a wall during a rehearsal but then moved a couple seats away and the sound was terrific.

While there is an acoustical consistency to Disney, the actual experience of the hall is different everywhere you sit. There is something very liberating about that notion, but concert halls are not normally known as bastions of democracy, and I did hear an awful lot of competitive grumbling over these three nights.

A gripping 'Spring'

The varying perspectives -- acoustic and psychoacoustic -- made the intriguing first gala's gradual progression from solo voice to full orchestra somewhat confusing aurally and musically. But few cared by the time we reached Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring," fabulously played. One New York Stravinskyite told me he thought it all too fast, as Salonen and the Philharmonic showed off just what they could do in the hall. But that was also what made its grip on the listener so tight. Such a performance could never have been given in the less immediate, bass-sucking acoustics of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

The second gala, which was devoted to modern music and featured the premiere of John Adams' "The Dharma at Big Sur," greatly impressed East Coast critics. That the Philharmonic would offer an uncompromising program that included Salonen's "LA Variations," Lutoslawski's Cello Concerto (with Yo-Yo Ma as soloist) and Revueltas' "Sensemaya" really was a wake-up call to traditional orchestras that like little about the last 100 years other than their up-to-date paychecks.

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