Salonen sez time is right for grand new digs

Tourists, ticket buyers and tour groups are crowding the intersection of First and Grand, eyeing the bent steel of Walt Disney Concert Hall from every angle possible. Often their faces scrunch up with a look of disbelief. It’s hard, though, to tell if their thoughts are architectural or orchestral, if the disbelief concerns how Frank Gehry designed this wild building that shares nothing — surfaces, design, size — with its neighbors or how its principal resident, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, will sound inside.

It’s safe to say mission accomplished, even before a note has been played publicly. The new $274 million home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic has put the names of architect Gehry and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen on the lips of countless Angelenos; the concept of Los Angeles as cultural center of the West is counting new believers at a steady rate; and, suddenly, the Philharmonic is more a source of pride than a local sports team.

Other buildings have opened with similar fanfare in recent years — Staples Center, Kodak Theater, Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral — and they have taken their knocks, everything from seat size to parking rates to sight lines. The Disney Concert Hall opens with an aura of perfection, an idea that as twisted and incomprehensible as the outside is, the interior will deliver spectacular sound and showcase artists like no other hall in the world.

“I almost dare to say it has been a lucky thing that this was delayed,” Salonen says. “I’m more ready, Frank Gehry was not a superstar 10 years ago and (the Phil’s) profile was completely different. The message of the whole thing is more powerful.”

Not to mention staggering.

“Something this profound, something that will have an impact on the entire society and culture within which I work — this is the first time and probably the last,” he says. “On some level it’s a bit disturbing. At the age of 45, I am fairly certain that this will be the peak performance in these terms. In artistic terms maybe something will be privately satisfying, but on a public level, I won’t ever participate in something that will have this kind of impact.”

Salonen has been guiding the Philharmonic for 13 years now. Artistry got him to the podium; his adventurous programming has made countless observers turn attention toward the Los Angeles Philharmonic season announcements. But it took a 1996 tour of Europe, when traveling local patrons got to hear Salonen and his band in premium conditions that the money for the stalled concert hall started to pour in.

By that time, though, Salonen had become a fixture of the community. He was the rare male, classical music figure that could be marketed.

“He can translate the very personal feeling he gets from conducting,” says Joan Cumming, director of marketing for the L.A. Philharmonic. “It’s hip and intellectual. Because of that we’re able to convey the concert experience itself. Most conductors find it hard to put that experience into words.”

In some parts of the country, a new hall is a separate chapter. Here it’s a whole new book. The various spaces in and around the hall are far more natural conduits for gatherings than the Music Center across the street. Programming has been expanded to include jazz and world music, two styles that have rarely found their way into the other three Music Center houses. And down the road, it opens a door to members of the artistic community who have chosen to ignore any place west of the Hudson River.

The conductor intends to work with the San Francisco Symphony in getting artists to break free of traditions — “some people go to Boston every year just because of habit” — or psychological barriers that prevent them from traveling an extra five hours from Europe or Asia. “There is now a destination (for international artists) in Los Angeles that makes the trip worthwhile.”

He adds: “From my point of view, the challenge is to integrate the Philharmonic into contemporary life and make it feel somehow less exclusive. The message I want to send is openness and excitement and fun, which are not attributes most people list among the top 10 in the arts.”

How open Disney Hall is remains to be seen, ticket prices now run $35 to $120, with $15 seats available behind the orchestra some nights.

And fun and excitement? Mahler as a theme park? Hardly. Salonen is careful to draw a distinction between pandering to audiences and creating programs that make a night of orchestral music as logical as a trip to the multiplex. (See related story, page Ax.) Programmers at the multiplexes, he figures, see it differently.

“Obviously a major arts organization should have a close relationship with the local industry and the entertainment business would appear a natural, but this is not the case,” he says. “It appears there a number of historical reasons. We are still suffering from attitudes of 1930 — arts and entertainment separated and the gap has remained open.

“The entertainment business tends to see every other type of activity as competition. They are fairly aggressive — any other activity that has to do with free time has to be killed if possible. That makes it fairly difficult to make close ties.”

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