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The rising murmurs from the seats

A small chorus of complaints cites the scant legroom, and there are other gripes too.

June 13, 2004|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

Dr. Kenneth Williams of Los Angeles is a retired pediatric oncologist -- but at the March 19 Los Angeles Philharmonic concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall, the doctor was playing detective.

While his wife enjoyed a pre-concert talk about Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony, Williams was scurrying around the auditorium with a tape measure, trying to solve the mystery of why some seats in the Frank Gehry-designed venue are more comfortable than others.

"I'm a little compulsive sometimes," he admitted later.

Williams' pre-concert measuring spree bore out his intuition: Although measuring anything in the curvilinear hall is an inexact science, the space ranged from about 3 feet between rows in the $120 seats down to 2 feet between rows in the $15 behind-the-orchestra "bench" seats.

Williams and his wife, Sally, subscribers to the Philharmonic's Casual Fridays series, have tried various $35 seats, both in back of the orchestra -- just behind the bench seats -- and in the rear balcony. According to his measure, nearly all provided about 26 inches of legroom.

And when you're 6-1, Williams says, 26 inches isn't enough.

"The box office said, 'Do you want to take the $120 seats or the $88 seats?' I said, 'No, I'd like a $35 seat that is comfortable,' " he recalled by telephone.

As the Philharmonic's first season in its new space draws to a close, the bloom is off the stainless-steel rose for some Disney Hall attendees.

In recent months, a handful of the disgruntled have either written to The Times or offered verbal complaints about such issues as acoustics, sight lines, the dim exterior lighting and the price of the food in the Concert Hall Cafe.

Most in this unscientific sample seem to keep returning to the hall to complain again -- suggesting that there's more to enjoy about it than dislike. High marks go to the friendly, helpful ushers and the clean, well-lighted parking garage.

A couple of letter writers -- Sanders Chase, owner of the Record Collector rare and unusual records store on Melrose, and A. Michael Noll, a professor at USC's Annenberg School of Communications -- complained about the much-lauded acoustics. Noll, who cited a harshness of sound and said the hall's wood floors serve only to amplify audience noise, went so far as to say the acoustics are better in the Philharmonic's former home, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Noll did praise the acoustics in the two "student listening areas" on the terrace level. The drawback: The stage and orchestra cannot be seen from those locations, which were designed for purchasers of low-price student rush tickets.

Still, the most common complaints have been about the tight seating -- and a sense of vertigo in the steep higher tiers. Some concertgoers consider even the $120 front orchestra seats inadequate. Take Sylvia Kunin, founder of the Beverly Hills-based Young Musicians Foundation. "I'm only 5 feet tall -- actually 4-foot-11 now that I'm 90 -- and I couldn't cross my feet," she said. "We've had real good seats down there in the fancy orchestra -- I've been everywhere in the hall -- and getting in and out of each section you have to go single file. I'm wondering, had anyone thought of a God forbid? If you've got to get out of there, you can't."

Harold Robert Udkoff, 86, of Westwood, is as concerned as Kunin about getting in and out of the hall. "I won't go back there again, the place is a fire trap," he wrote to The Times in December. A veteran of the music business as Duke Ellington's onetime manager, Udkoff said being in Disney Hall conjured up memories of the 1942 fire at Boston's Cocoanut Grove nightclub that killed almost 500 people. "I'm afraid of the place. It scares me," he said.

In response to complaints about seating, the Philharmonic said in an e-mail: "Concerns about leg room or vertigo have been addressed on a case-by-case basis, and we have worked with each patron to make the necessary accommodations. Our ushers and Music Center staff are well trained to assist patrons in exiting the building in emergency situations and the Hall has passed all safety and emergency tests."

But what about sitting outside the hall? In November, MaLin Wilson-Powell, a curator at San Antonio's McNay Art Museum, was in town visiting a friend, who dropped her off at Disney Hall while he parked his car. Wilson-Powell couldn't make the walk: She had fractured a foot, which was encased in an unwieldy cast. She decided to sit on the Disney Hall steps while awaiting her companion -- and was promptly shooed away by a burly male guard.

"He just kept saying: 'You can't sit here. You are not allowed to sit here,' " Wilson-Powell said. "I wanted him to tell me why: Is this a rule? Is this private property or public property? He said there was a side lobby area that I could sit in, but I said, 'I have this cast on, and I'm waiting to meet my friend in front of Disney Hall.' But he just kept standing there until I moved. I can tell you, I was shocked."

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