The lights went down in the Walt Disney Concert Hall as Dianne Reeves took center stage and wrapped her luscious baritone around the opening notes of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Immediately, the capacity audience rose in silence, already awed by the richness and beauty of sound in the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s new home. When Reeves had finished, the cheers reflected relief and admiration.
Fifteen years since groundbreaking, $274 million in planning and construction, Frank Gehry’s daring, lustrous designs, their fluid structural lines blessed by a veritable symphony of gleaming wood and metal, their sinuous lines fulfilled by acousticians Yasuhisa Toyota and Minoru Nagata, confounds generations of naysayers by turning out as well — nay, better — than anyone’s fondest hopes. Los Angeles’ new concert hall is as beautiful as — well, as the music it has been built to contain.
An opening-night program was cleverly designed to reflect the quality, and even the shape, of the building, building outward along spirals in a stunning sonic crescendo. Concert master Martin Chalifour ended the Philharmonic’s final concert in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in May with a movement from a Bach Partita for solo violin. Now, framed by the console of the Disney’s not-yet-completed organ, he played one more movement.
Charles Ives’ famously quizzical “The Unanswered Question” added slightly to the performing forces: four flutes and a solo trumpet onstage, soft string harmonies off in the distance, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting an otherwise empty stage. Gradually the forces built up: Music by the Renaissance master Giovanni Gabrieli for four pairs of brass instruments spread around the hall, a haunting chorale by Gyorgy Ligeti that filled the hall with its seductive, mysterious buzzing, a short Mozart symphony that finally, before intermission, brought the sounds of a symphony into a hall designed for just that.
After the intermission, the heavens opened with Igor Stravinsky’s roof-rattling “Rite of Spring” in the now-famous Salonen version, but in the vastly improved acoustic setting of its new home. Salonen’s performance is justly famous; under him the work might be reckoned a Los Angeles signature piece. (Contrast this to the work’s previous fate in the same city, torn to ribbons and grossly misrepresented in the “Fantasia” of a previous Disney era.)
Any doubt about the new hall’s sonic superiority vanished in the sonic panorama: the thudding basses and drum that set climactic moments into one’s bloodstream, the brazen interplay of woodwinds that gives the music its initial spin, the rude summoning of the massed brass (including nine French horns!). Expectedly, there are problems still to be faced, as with any intricately designed performance space; the very clarity of the hall’s acoustics — judged from the left-side Garden Terrace level close to the stage — turns every wayward sneeze, or cough, or dropped program into a widespread sonic boom. Musicians will have to relearn how to make best use of their new space; audiences will as well.
At the end, the crowd, convinced that Los Angeles’ new landmark is as good as it looks, delivered its fortissimo approval to conductor, orchestra, architect and acoustician. They then trod the red carpet to a nearby tent, where one of Joachim Splichal’s resonant dinners capped the evening in proper style.