Downtown's performance dream comes true

After 16 years of false starts, shifts in plans and a massive fundraising effort, the Walt Disney Concert Hall opened its doors Thursday with the first of three galas by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Disney Concert Hall opened with vocalist Dianne Reeves, the Phil’s creative head of jazz, singing the national anthem unaccompanied and beneath a single spotlight. The evening’s program included other solo work and the L.A. Philharmonic performing one of its signature pieces, Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.”

Galas continue tonight with Living L.A., which includes the world premiere of John Adams’ “The Dharma at Big Sur,” and Saturday, which boasts the premiere of John Williams’ “Soundings,” a piece he wrote specifically for the hall, and an array of film music.

The new Frank Gehry-designed home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic has fired up anticipation not only in Southern California, but in music and architectural circles around the globe. “There is now a world-class destination in L.A. to make the trip worthwhile for touring orchestras, artists and conductors,” Esa-Pekka Salonen told Daily Variety.

The entrance of Disney Concert Hall is located at First and Grand, across the street from its sister Music Center venues, the Ahmanson Theater, Mark Taper Forum and the Phil’s former home, the 3,086-seat Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The L.A. Phil has a 60-year lease on the building, which is owned by Los Angeles County.

The interior is wood and glass; the exterior, metal. Brightly colored carpeting and matching seats — oranges and blues dominate — give the hall a casual feel that’s a polar opposite of the Pavilion’s stately marble, glass and chandeliers.

Changing the arts

“Here we have something changing the face of the arts,” exec director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Deborah Borda told Daily Variety. “It’s been a 16-year odyssey and now we have a hall that’s not only done, but done well. We want to be at the vanguard of change.”

The $274 million Disney Concert Hall is smaller than the old digs — 2,265 seats, some of them located behind or to the side of the performers.

Yasuhisa Toyota of the Japan-based Nagata Acoustics, whose next project is the $304 million performing arts center in Kansas City, Mo., was the hall’s acoustician. He followed Gehry’s plan to make the seating area boatlike and has predicted Disney Concert Hall will yield better acoustics than famed Suntory Hall in Tokyo.

“When I hugged Frank to celebrate the exterior, he whispered to me, ‘Did I make it intimate enough?'” said Gordon Davidson, who runs the Taper and Ahmanson, at a Music Center luncheon Thursday. After venturing inside, Davidson reacted, “It is gloriously intimate and musically superb.”

With the smaller seating capacity, the Philharmonic has considerably expanded the number of programs in a season to more than 150. When that’s combined with Hollywood Bowl events, the Philharmonic appears to be the No. 1 symphony in the nation in terms of the number of events presented.

$50 million gift

Money for the hall started as a $50 million gift from Walt Disney’s widow, Lillian.

By the time the Music Center board of governors approved the Disney Hall in June 1992, the Disney family had added $17.5 million to the pot; by late that year, through interest, the hall’s account had swelled to $93.5 million. The plan was for construction to begin within two months and be finished in 1996.

The Northridge earthquake of 1994 stalled plans, and as the gap between the bank account and construction costs rose, chances increased that the hall wouldn’t be built.

A series of performances in 1996 in Paris and other European cities opened a number of ears to the quality of the Philharmonic, then opened wallets as well. Salonen had begun to grumble that to hear the Philharmonic properly, one needed to travel to Europe.

“The first appeal,” said Emily Laskin, the Philharmonic’s director of development, “was about improving the acoustics and the response was ‘yeah, yeah, fine.’ The second pitch was, ‘If the hall isn’t built, we’ll be embarrassed.’ There was a lot of support to make sure L.A. wasn’t embarrassed.”

Finances for Music Center-based groups appear to be improving. The L.A. Philharmonic Assn. now has an operating budget of almost $63 million, up from $57 million last year. The Los Angeles Opera, the new primary tenant in the Pavilion, has a budget of $42.9 million, an amount that has doubled in the last five years.

Hot tickets

Tickets have gone quickly for the hall’s inaugural season, with a four-concert jazz series selling out first. L.A. Phil is looking at about 28,000 subscribers for its classical, jazz and world music series. Disney Concert Hall will be open through the weekend of June 11, when Salonen again conducts “Rite of Spring” and unveils his own “Wing on Wing,” written about the hall.

The association also programs the Hollywood Bowl and will retain its summer home. The Music Center will, for the second summer, boast year-round programming, next year courtesy of the L.A. Opera (see related story). That could open the door for more summer events downtown at a venue that has been like a ghost town in July and August.

“Over the coming weeks and months, we’ll be overflowing with possibilities and ideas (about events that can be staged at the Music Center),” said Music Center chairman John Emerson. “If the energy from the opening generates financial support, it will make things available that weren’t before.”

Currently, Disney Hall is programmed according to type of music and does not attempt fusion programs that would bring together music from various corners of the world and symphonic music. While noting programs that attempt a cultural mishmash often come out a mixed bag, Salonen said he wouldn’t be adverse to mixing it up a bit. “It has to be planned carefully and executed brilliantly.”

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