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Time to temper the praise for that steel-clad hall

September 08, 2003|Rip Rense

I'm not one of those concertgoers who engages in "bravo" shouting contests, but when I finished Scott Timberg's piece summarizing anti-Disney Hall sentiment ("What's not to like? Well ... ," Sept. 5), I said "bravo" aloud.

A few months ago, when the Disney Hall hype-organ began tooting, National Public Radio's Susan Stamberg called the place a "symphony in stainless steel." I say it's a concerto grosso.

Yes, stainless steel is just what I think about when I hear symphonies. Beethoven's rhythms evoke images of icy, sharp-edged, asymmetrical hunks of dancing metal. When I hear Mahler, my heart soars with iron. Sibelius? I cry ferrous tears, and my emotions are tin-plated, leaden. Stravinsky? Nothing supple about it -- just a hard, chunky, metalline experience. Favorite composer: Walter Piston!

Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff disagrees. He says that the Frank Gehry-designed, $274-million, tres chic Walt Disney Hall is "sexy" and that "nothing in this country," as he told the Sacramento Bee, "looks like that. No, nothing."

I dunno, Nic. Been to a wrecking yard lately? A sheet metal expo? Industrial refrigerator factory?

To me, Disney Hall looks like half-torn-up cardboard boxes left out in the rain, spray-painted silver. There are equal, if not superior, sculptures to be found on Skid Row a couple of blocks away, where street people ... tear up cardboard boxes and sleep in them (check their appearance after a rain). Add one can of silver spray paint, and you've got hundreds of mini-Disneys.

Hmmm.... Maybe that's why L.A. Philharmonic Executive Director Deborah Borda chirps, "This is your living room. Come visit." Maybe she's seen all the torn-up cardboard living rooms on nearby Main Street.

Wait a second! Maybe that's it. Borda and the Phil brass -- er, apologies to the horn section, make that administration -- are forever blowing fortissimo about making classical music more down-to-earth and accessible for everyone. After all, the proposed sculpture outside Disney is a broken bow tie -- nudge, nudge, get it? So Gehry must have taken his cue directly from Skid Row, didn't he? He was emulating the down-to-earth (street-level, in fact) lean-tos and shanties of the homeless! He was making a $274-million statement about the poor and abandoned. This is Fanfare for the Common (Homeless) Man!

Well, OK, maybe not.

After all, there are 1,000 fewer seats in Disney. Ticket prices have gone off the scale -- somewhere above high B, as in "broke," which is what a new L.A. Phil ducat will leave you. Groundling slots are $35 (up from $14) with orchestra thrones at an impressive $120 (up from an impressive $80).

Of course, you can sit behind the musicians for $40 or $50. More accessible? This is your living room? I can watch Daniel Barenboim conduct Mahler on a DVD in my living room for nuttin'. And the DVD costs less than Disney's cheapest bone rest.

But the Pavilion acoustics were terrible, Gehry proponents shrilled -- led by Times music critic Mark Swed, who seemingly never let a review pass without complaining that Dorothy Buffum Chandler's dream house was "muffled" or just "not a good concert hall."

Right. Call me a Phil-istine, but 33 years of reasonably priced concerts at the Muffled Buffum made it into my ears without a problem. I mean, you'd think that the L.A. Opera, now the principal Pavilion tenant, inherited a bat belfry.

That the orchestra played in the Chandler only four decades (European halls go on for centuries) is really no surprise, I guess. L.A. is in a state of perpetual suicide. It is forever murdering the best of itself, often as not replacing it with the worst in all of us. Got a nice old landmark? Great spot for a hideous mini-mall. How Musso & Frank's and the Apple Pan have survived is beyond me. The only tradition in L.A. is to kill tradition.

But the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion did not deserve the character assassination it received from Swed and the cawing crows fascinated with the shiny object across the street. It served admirably well, without any complaints about acoustics from Zubin Mehta, Carlo Maria Giulini, Andre Previn, countless guest conductors, and listeners not cursed with ears that can detect carminative ants.

In an interview before his last appearance a few months ago, Mehta made some statements indicating bafflement over the criticism of the Pavilion -- that, when he took over the orchestra there in 1962, it seemed like a Parthenon on the hill.

As far as I'm concerned, it looks all the more so next to Gehry's Silver Stunt.

Rip Rense is a Los Angeles writer who reviewed L.A. Philharmonic concerts for the L.A. Daily News in the late '70s. He writes a weekly column, "Riposte," for his Web site,

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