Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra members Julie Gigante, left, Allan Vogel… (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)
Whenever the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra performs, violinist Julie Gigante is likely to get a few second glances. "At every concert, people recognize her," says Andrea Laguni, LACO's general manager. "They ask, 'Is that the girl in the mural?'"
Gigante has become a familiar face to many Angelenos, thanks to Kent Twitchell's 8-story tribute to the orchestra, "Harbor Freeway Overture," which overlooks the northbound 110 Freeway downtown. The 11,000-square-foot artwork fills three parking-structure walls with a dozen figures in concert dress standing beneath a cloudy sky.
"Kent did more than create a pretty picture," says Gigante, a first violin who joined LACO 25 years ago. "It's an intriguing piece of art that makes people stop and look and think."
"Overture" is also the largest installed work by a man known for his super-sized portraits, which makes it a cultural point of interest as well as a roadside landmark.
Such visibility was what the orchestra hoped for when it sought Twitchell's help in generating some buzz two decades ago. "The mural is an icon," says Laguni. "It has definitely raised our profile."
LACO will mark that icon's 20th anniversary during its concerts Saturday at the Alex Theatre in Glendale and Sunday at UCLA's Royce Hall. A brief program will include introductions of the three current ensemble members who are in the mural and, at the Glendale show, the artist.
Looking back, the L.A.-based Twitchell says, "my greatest satisfaction comes from painting a monument to a great orchestra and, consequently, a monument to great music."
He also appreciates the fact that, unlike some of his pieces, "Overture" has survived the years in good shape.
Not that there haven't been challenges. Graffiti once marred the bottom. Eucalyptus trees grew so high they spoiled the view. And, says Laguni, "with different building management changes, the idea would come up of using the walls for billboards."
Each threat has been addressed. In 2006, defacing marks were cleaned and a coating that facilitates graffiti removal was applied. The trees were replaced by what Laguni calls "slow-growing bushes with nasty thorns that help prevent more graffiti."
Twitchell says attorney Les Weinstein, a friend and former LACO board member, has "stepped in at least twice "to keep the space ad-free.
"Les was able to point out this would not go down easily," Laguni says. "It helps that nobody wanted to do anything bad to a mural after 'Ed Ruscha'" — a reference to Twitchell's receiving a $1.1-million settlement after his "Ed Ruscha Monument" in downtown was painted over in 2006.
Weinstein, who retired from the board in 2009, was instrumental in "Overture's" creation. He suggested that Twitchell paint the mega-mural and approached him about the plan. At the time, LACO, which was founded in 1968, had what Laguni says was "an international profile, but not as good a local profile."
Tachi Kiuchi, then a board member and chairman and CEO of Mitsubishi Electronics America Inc., arranged for his company to fund the $140,000 project. Space was provided on the parking facility for what was then Citicorp Plaza.
Twitchell, who donated his time, painted panels of "non-woven media" — a blend of polyester and cellulose — in his studio, then attached the panels to the walls. The image of Ralph Morrison, who was concertmaster from 1988 to 1996, went up first, appearing on the right wall in 1991. (Morrison is now concertmaster of the Los Angeles Master Chorale's orchestra and active in studio work, LACO officials say.)
The left wall features Gigante, whom Twitchell has described as "a classical model."
In the middle of the mural, which was completed in 1994, are nine musicians, including two who are still in the ensemble: principal oboe Allan Vogel, whose 40-year tenure is the longest in LACO history, and principal viola Roland Kato, a 33-year veteran. Also pictured is Kiuchi, who Twitchell explains "is there in the Renaissance tradition of painting sponsors into the art."
After the figures were finished, Twitchell adds, the words "Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra" were inserted to avoid confusion with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
LACO expects "Harbor Freeway Overture" to last for many more years. Laguni notes that Twitchell used "high-grade pigments and a durable surface" and says the parking structure's current owners — Brookfield Office Properties and MPG Office Trust Inc. — are "art-friendly."
"By design, we don't own our own hall," he says. "So we like having our own wall and hope to have it for a long time."