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Critic's notebook: Nearly 10 years old, Disney Hall needs upgrades

Frank Gehry's Disney Hall design and Yasuhisa Toyota's acoustics have made the hall a destination but the hall needs new elements.

September 04, 2013|Mark Swed
  • Walt Disney Concert Hall opened in Los Angeles on Oct. 23, 2003.
Walt Disney Concert Hall opened in Los Angeles on Oct. 23, 2003. (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )

This post has been corrected. See note below.

Already a Los Angeles landmark, Walt Disney Concert Hall turns 10 this fall. Celebrations on Grand Avenue will be populist and bold, including a Los Angeles Philharmonic gala on Sept. 30 with video projections inside Frank Gehry's curvaceous structure and a free concert on Sept. 29 that will be simulcast on a giant video screen in Grand Park.

We can expect that singing a concert hall's praises will provide a voluble component to the L.A. soundtrack for the next couple of months. Has anything made the city feel as progressive as this visionary venue has since, say, the opening of Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine more than half a century ago?

The 2,265-seat auditorium is acoustically one of the finest of its size in the world. Disney Hall has helped revitalize downtown, and it has inspired the L.A. Phil to become one of the most vibrant and forward-looking major arts organizations anywhere. Tourists take pleasure in merely touching the building's shiny surfaces.

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Yet Disney Hall is not what it could be. Panicky cost-cutting measures during construction left out elements that would have made the exterior and lobby more dazzling and the hall more flexible. The Music Center, which maintains the hall, seems in danger of taking the venue for granted, not eager to invest in it when it can bask in glory by doing nothing. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is planning a subway line under the hall, raising concerns that train vibrations will spoil the sound.

Now, while Disney Hall is entering into its 10th anniversary in the limelight, is the time to begin thinking about the next 10 years and the decades beyond. Concert halls are meant to last.

When it opened in 2003, Disney was deemed a stunning instant success. The spectacular novelty of Gehry's design and acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota's remarkably intimate sound seemed to reinvent the modern concert hall. In fact, Disney Hall reinvents nothing.

It is a thoroughly traditional concert hall that puts primacy on tried-and-true acoustical principals, its liquid, vibrant ambience being all but inimical to the latest — and quickly outdated — multimedia bells and whistles. The genius of Disney Hall is, instead, that the modernity of its design places a listener in the frame of reference to hear all music as part of the modern experience, while the acoustics have the quality of the great concert halls of the past, where acoustical music has a visceral presence.

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It took a long time and much experimentation to get there. Gehry's design went through many phases in a process that began in 1987 with a $50-million donation from Lillian Disney, Walt's widow. The very need for a new home for the L.A Phil — which performed in the Music Center's sonically dull, multipurpose Dorothy Chandler Pavilion — had to be justified over and over again, as the project stalled during the region's economic downturn in the '90s and the price tag rose to a final $274 million.

Donors and critics attacked the design — especially before Gehry's 1997 Guggenheim Museum triumphantly opened in Bilbao, Spain — complaining that the architecture was too irregularly shaped to be in harmony with the classical proportions of centuries' old music it was meant to serve.

They were convinced only at the gala opening night, when Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted "Rite of Spring." Stravinsky had attempted to capture the sound of the ice violently cracking with the dawn of spring in his primeval ballet score, a sound that Russians know as felt throughout their bodies. That particular sensation had never before been available in Los Angeles.

The same phenomenon occurred a year later when the organ became fully functional. Concert organ music had been going out of fashion, the instrument more associated with Sunday church services than the concert hall. But the combination of the psycho-acoustical effect of hearing rich, reedy sonorities coming from Gehry's radically French-fry-shaped organ pipes and feeling the physical vibrations surge through your body in this acoustically alive space has helped revitalize this magnificent instrument.

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The building's greatest contribution to modern musical culture, though, is that its ambience creates a desire to hear new sounds. That has allowed the L.A. Phil to become the leader in commissioning new work and to build an audience for new music, which is a powerful way to keep an orchestra relevant.

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