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Critic's Notebook: Great L.A. Philharmonic news could be greater

The orchestra's 2011-12 season is exceptionally ambitious and Gustavo Dudamel is signed until 2019. Now let's get the Disney Hall Frank Gehry intended.

February 10, 2011|By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
  • Architect Frank Gehry
Architect Frank Gehry (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )

The Los Angeles Philharmonic announced on Monday a new season of unprecedented ambition. What orchestra wouldn't be proud to be able to bring off just one of its many projects?

In 2011-12, Gustavo Dudamel will conduct a complete Mahler symphony cycle. Not just one newsworthy fully staged production (Mozart's "Don Giovanni" designed by Frank Gehry), not two (the premiere of Shostakovich's newly completed "Orango" directed by Peter Sellars) but three (the premiere of John Adams' "The Gospel According to the Other Mary" also directed by Sellars) will be presented in Walt Disney Concert Hall next season. Among the scads of new music, much of it commissioned, can be found works by two of Europe's most progressive composers (Louis Andriessen and Georg Friedrich Haas), whom other U.S. orchestras don't dare touch.

The other important news is that Gustavo Dudamel has signed an extension on the lease of his dressing room in Walt Disney Concert Hall until 2018-19. That means he will remain as music director of the orchestra for at least 10 seasons. Can life in the most alluring concert hall in the country get any better than this?

In fact, the answer is: Yes!

The Music Center, which administers Disney Hall, doesn't like to hear this, but the concert hall is not yet what it can be, or should be, or was originally intended to be.

Other groundbreaking classical music news of late has been January's opening of the New World Center in Miami Beach, home to Michael Tilson Thomas' New World Symphony and designed by Disney Hall architect Frank Gehry. Outside, concerts can be projected on the façade of the building. Inside, a 756-seat concert hall is a multimedia wonderland, suitable for electronics and video.

These were once dreams for Disney Hall that the Music Center felt were too impractical, too expensive or simply too visionary. Well, after a visit to Miami, it's clear they not only work but are being called a game-changing way for classical music to reach a wide public, and it is hardly too late to implement them. Nor are they too expensive, not if you are willing to look at the big picture — figuratively and literally.

The New World Symphony has trademarked the title WallCast, but the idea came straight from Disney Hall. Gehry selected the exterior steel specifically for its "filmic" properties. He had anticipated that evening concerts inside would be projected on the building's skin, which would have brought a whole new visual bling to downtown. Gehry once told me that the system, which was deemed too expensive, would have cost $5 million, raising the price of the hall to $290 million. For a comparison, the total for the whole building still would have been less than what it cost to make "Avatar," according to some estimates for the 3-D film.

The speaker system for the WallCasts was created by Fred Vogler, the sound designer of Disney Hall and the Hollywood Bowl. The 167-speaker setup in Miami Beach, which is magical, suggests that Disney Hall concerts could be live outdoor events too. There is a parking lot waiting to be demolished across Grand Avenue, which could be turned into a great public space for an audience, given that the long-promised development of that avenue will not likely happen any time soon and that it will abut the Civic Center park now under construction across 1st Street.

Then there is the city's other musical icon, the Hollywood Bowl. After the outdoor concerts at Miami, now we know that we don't need to put up with tinny sound anymore. Vogler said the price tag for his Miami Beach system was $2 million. For the 18,000-seat Bowl, that would possibly cost 18 times more. But the New World sound is a new world sound. My guess is that this would generate enough excitement that extra ticket sales would eventually offset the cost.

No one likes hearing about the annoying little things, the Disney details, but they also make a difference. The dismal cafe, the dismal outdoor lighting, the Music Center's lack of interest in maintaining an interesting garden, the fake Gehry touches (such as the little-used glass bar in the lobby). These, along with multimedia features Gehry had originally designed, were also taken away from the architect to save a few pennies.

But as anyone who regularly sees Gehry at Disney concerts can attest, the hall is like a second home to him. He's a soft touch. Music Center officials who can't get him to design the tweaks this hall needs at a bargain rate are really out of touch.

Sure, the campus has other pressing needs, such a major renovation of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and fundraising has never been more difficult. But a fully realized Disney Hall would be a real 3-D avatar of a 21st century metropolis. This Disney is not fantasyland. If Miami Beach can do it, we should be able to do it better. Los Angeles deserves it, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic has earned it.

mark.swed@latimes.com

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