×

They built it and the people will indeed come.

The Walt Disney Concert Hall, which supporters view as the crown jewel in Los Angeles’ shifting downtown, will open its doors in October; choice tickets to the first eight months of programs are already hard to come by.

The new home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic has fired up anticipation not only in Southern California, but in music circles around the globe, as everyone is hoping that one building can make a difference in the field of classical music.

While most talk about classical music in the U.S. turns to dwindling audiences and financial woes — at least eight U.S. symphony orchestras have filed for bankruptcy in the last two years — the L.A. Phil is a beacon of achievement.

“Here we have something changing the face of the arts,” says exec director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Deborah Borda. “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.”

After spending 38 seasons in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, a multi-purpose venue with 3,086 seats, the Los Angeles Philharmonic is crossing Grand Avenue for the new $278 million hall designed by Frank Gehry.

The inside 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.

The Disney Concert Hall has 2,265 seats, some of them located behind and to the side of the performers on the orchestra level.

While the oxidization of the wood is already visible, the cement will be drying for two years. Sound technicians have told Borda it will be two years before “we get optimum sound.”

Judged after a single rehearsal — the orch performed for high-level donors on June 30 — patrons decided there isn’t a bad seat in the house (even the last row in the level-three balcony).

News is getting out: As of mid-July, the L.A. Phil was up to 26,000 subscribers for its classical, jazz and world music series. (The L.A. Master Chorale will also move into the new hall.)

But there’s still some promotion that needs to be done: Philharmonic execs say L.A. citizens still aren’t clear about what will happen in the hall. People have asked if Disney Concert Hall is where “The Lion King” is staged or if it will show only Disney movies.

“One of the only givens in this business is you have to know your city and respond to the marketplace,” says Joan Cumming, the L.A. Phil’s director of marketing.

“In Cleveland, there’s the Indians and the orchestra. L.A. might well be the most competitive city when it comes to the entertainment dollar. And here time is more precious than money.”

The common perception among orchestral executives is that the L.A. operation is at least five years ahead of the curve in many departments — marketing, fund-raising and programming, which Esa-Pekka Salonen oversees and is often a compelling blend of the obscure and established. The Finnish conductor specializes in the music of Sibelius, Ligeti and Stravinsky.

But, like every other American orchestra, Salonen and the Phil are without a domestic recording contract. (The L.A. Philharmonic was previously with Sony Classical.) Unlike the pop music world, the hall therefore matters.

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

Although across the street, it is still considered part of the Los Angeles Music Center, which opened in 1964 and was funded largely through the efforts of Dorothy Buffum Chandler, who raised $20 million in private donations. (L.A. County provided the site and raised the remaining $14 million using mortgage revenue bonds).

By the time the Music Center board of governors OK’d the Disney hall in June 1992, the Disney family had added $17.5 million to the pot and 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.

Then came a 1996 series of performances in Paris that, the Los Angeles Times reported, “could prove to be a turning point for Disney Hall.”

Conductor Salonen had begun to grumble that, to hear the Philharmonic properly, one needed to travel to Europe and that if the new hall didn’t receive financial support from the community, it “would be very hard to cope with psychologically.”

Articles written by L.A. Times classical music critic Mark Swed started a groundswell of support for the hall. Philharmonic patrons and board members who traveled with the orch to Paris returned with a new fervor for getting the hall constructed.

“The first appeal,” Emily Laskin, the Philharmonic’s director of development, says, “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.”

Cities with new halls have seen strong responses.

The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, which had struggled for decades, saw its subscription base leap to 25,000 from 9,000 when in 1997 it moved into the new Performing Arts Center in Newark. The Dallas Symphony, which has been in its Meyerson Symphony Center for a little more than a decade, managed to balance its $21 million budget in fiscal 2003 and expects increased traffic in conjunction with the opening of the adjacent Nasher Sculpture Center.

The New York Philharmonic will be moving to Carnegie Hall in a few years, which is expected to give that august group a big boost.

And in L.A. even those without new venues are energized by the new site.

“I see them as colleagues on Los Angeles’ cultural landscape,” says David Sefton, director of UCLA Live, which presents concerts, theater and dance on the city’s Westside.

“Anything that raises the bar culturally is good news and the entire world will be looking at us for 14½ minutes, which can also only be good.”

After the Philharmonic moves into its new digs, Los Angeles Opera becomes the primary tenant in the Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

The Phil has a stand at its summertime home, the Hollywood Bowl to pitch the Hall’s inaugural season.

A placard outlining the subscription series is chock full of SOLD OUT stamps and the pitchman implores anyone who’ll listen: “If you want to see a concert at Disney Concert Hall, you’ll have to subscribe. There won’t be any single concert tickets available.”

Ticket sales account for 68% of the Phil’s $54 million operating budget; most orchestras, with much smaller budgets and fewer concerts, operate between 35% and 40%, with the rest coming from donations and grants.

“By having no Fortune 500 company here, we’ve had to rely on a larger number of smaller donors,” Laskin says. “We have to think differently.”