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Disney Concert Hall at 10

In Disney Hall, Los Angeles Philharmonic has had its best decade yet

Critic's Notebook: Los Angeles Philharmonic has capitalized on Walt Disney Concert Hall artistically in a remarkable run since its opening.

September 20, 2013|Mark Swed

For a few foolish moments in the feverish run-up to the opening of Walt Disney Concert Hall 10 years ago, cynical wags nicknamed the new venue Mouse House. Tomorrowland would have been more like it. The Los Angeles Philharmonic has enjoyed the most remarkable decade of its nearly 100-year history.

In Yasuhisa Toyota's transparent acoustical design for Disney Hall, there is nowhere to hide. The surround-sound auditorium favors democracy over exclusive accommodations, since listeners sit in direct contact with the musicians and with one another. On every level, the musical experience is enhanced. An ensemble that can better hear itself and that has a closer connection to its audience will obviously grow. So, too, will the audience.

During the Disney decade, the L.A. Phil has become the envy of orchestras everywhere. It nabbed the hottest property in the conducting world when Gustavo Dudamel succeeded Esa-Pekka Salonen as music director in 2009.

PHOTOS: Performances in Disney Hall

It snagged John Adams as creative consultant. It entered into a commissioning frenzy, significantly renewing the repertory with dozens of new pieces, and many — by the likes of Salonen, Adams, Thomas Adès and Peter Lieberson — have become widely played and garnered major awards.

The combination of Disney and Dudamel has all but ensured full houses. An orchestra with surpluses, not deficits, has resulted in possibly the best compensated and most contented players in an often-contentious business. The L.A. Phil has even acquired, in Disney Hall, a modicum of hipness, to the degree that a symphony orchestra can be hip.

The venue all but demands innovation, and inside it the orchestra regularly stages opera and employs such groundbreaking artists as the hall's architect Frank Gehry, video artist Bill Viola and director Peter Sellars. Los Angeles boasts the first big-league band to have produced a Minimalism festival (and it will host a second later this season).

Even so, it takes more than just a new hall for an orchestra to thrive in these days of technology-driven mass entertainment. A new hall will always initially boost ticket sales and orchestra morale, but it is not necessarily a long-term panacea.

VIDEO: Inside Disney Hall

Eight months before the Philadelphia Orchestra celebrated the 10th anniversary of its modern hall in the Kimmel Center, the ensemble became the first American orchestra of its size or stature to file for bankruptcy. In a worst-case scenario, the Minnesota Orchestra's acrimonious labor dispute this past year has in part revolved around musicians furious at a management that eagerly raised millions for improvements in its concert hall lobby while insisting players' salaries be drastically cut.

Perhaps the key to the L.A. Phil thriving in Disney is that the hall did not make the orchestra farsighted. That process mostly worked the other way around. An already visionary organization built itself a hall and then took advantage of it to realize the L.A. Phil's own prophetic potential.

The point of this concert hall was always the concert. The L.A. Phil certified Disney's potential for exceptional musical experiences Oct. 23, 2003, the night the hall opened. The first notes came from concertmaster Martin Chalifour standing in the organ loft alone with his violin, enticing Bach to enter the auditorium like an ethereally soft but bounteous mist. When Salonen later conducted Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," the floor underfoot shook with seismic force. The sense was that this was an orchestra that had long prepared for that day.

It had, and yet the day almost didn't happen.

When I arrived at The Times in the spring of 1996, nine years had passed since Lillian Disney's initial $50-million gift for a new hall for the orchestra. Yet all there was to show for it was the underground parking lot built with separate county funds.

INTERACTIVE: Disney Hall inside and out

Nearly everyone proclaimed the project moribund. Fundraising was at a standstill, with the city still recovering from an earthquake, riots and recession a few years earlier. There was considerable consternation among L.A. Phil patrons about cost overruns, the modernity of Gehry's design , and, for that matter, the modernist direction that Salonen had been moving the orchestra during his four years as music director.

Even so, the orchestra's tenacious general director, Ernest Fleischmann, refused to relinquish his craving for a setting more intimate and with far more acoustical energy than the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the orchestra's hall since 1964. But what if he had caved and called off construction of the hall, as, say, the Atlanta Symphony did four years ago when it failed to raise money for a sexy hall designed by Santiago Calatrava?

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