Amplification proved the first significant stumbling block in Los Angeles Philharmonic’s shiny new digs. The Philharmonic delivered robust readings of film scores that crisscrossed between the classic and the obscure, the forceful and the sublime in their all-Hollywood program. But the memory that will linger is the failure of the hall to palpably present the human voice, whether spoken or sung. Professional and rehearsed as the orchestra sounded, songs and speeches had the patina of an early tech rehearsal.
The star quotient of the night three bill, intended to bridge the downtown-Hollywood gap, quickly dimmed. To the sides of the stage, the words of presenters Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones were muffled and echoey; in the rear of the venue and balconies, they were often inaudible. The text for Soundstage L.A. — the toughest sell of the three galas and indeed there were empty seats scattered through every level — read like cliched awards-show introductions.
Sound problems were exacerbated when Brian Stokes Mitchell took the stage to sing David Raksin’s haunting theme to “Laura.” The singer consistently kept only a small gap between his mouth and the microphone, which created wild imbalance between the reproduction of the vocals and the unamplified orchestra.
Whether technicians attempted to fix the sound mid-song was hard to tell — his booming voice, paired with the unabated drama he put into the number, bounced around the hall uncontrolled. His voice sounded distant even from a seat where a listener could see the color of his eyes.
Josh Groban and Audra McDonald, perhaps taking note of the sound woes, sang with less concern about microphone proximity. Groban, whose career ascendancy has been driven by PBS appearances, delivered a firm reading of “Affair to Remember,” though he was certainly aided by the romantic yet tranquil melody composed by Harry Warren that didn’t require a wide vocal range.
McDonald benefited by singing to the solo accompaniment of John Williams at the piano and, later on, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting with kid-like playfulness. Her voice was by far the strongest and when she sang the most obscure ditty of the night, “10,432 Sheep” from 1951’s “West Point Story,” Soundstage LA became a swinging affair. She had a bit of vocal give-and-take with orchestra members, whose unamplified shout-singing may not have been very loud, but was at least clear.
On a positive side, the Soundstage program did a superb job exposing the spectrum of film scores. The Phil touched on the avant garde with Williams’ piquant “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and Jerry Goldsmith’s eerie yet booming work for the 1968 “Planet of the Apes”; they brought out the full majesty of Elmer Bernstein’s “Magnificent Seven” and Alfred Newman’s classic “How the West Was Won.”
Bernard Hermann’s “Vertigo,” its details beautifully displayed, sounded more made for the hall than Williams’ Phil-commissioned “Soundings,” which opened the evening. (A five-note phrase from “Soundings” will serve as the hall’s chimes). “Soundings,” like the opening night concert, flooded the room from various angles, this time via electronic reproduction, which didn’t enhance the relatively tuneless piece; it had an air of “we’re doing this because we can.”
“Soundings” did immediately identify the hall as unequivocally alive — it’s as easy to pinpoint the sound of the triangle as it is the location of a laugh in the audience. The liveliness shone in slow passages Saturday: It was a delight to consume the clarity of the basses, the trombones, tuba and flutes in a way that was not possible in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
But Disney Hall clearly has a significant flaw and less than three weeks to come up with an entirely new plan before presenting the next concert that requires amplification. The Keith Jarrett Trio is the first jazz concert on the hall’s docket, Nov. 12, and it may be wise for the L.A. Phil to let the esteemed pianist play sans mics and amps. It would certainly give the Disney Concert Hall a level of distinction in the jazz world — another bridge they’re attempting to cross — but to have a full concert of one of jazz’s greatest acts turn into amplified mush would be a disgrace.