A few weeks ago, we marked a grim milestone: A dozen years have passed since the 9/11 terrorist attack. Fortunately, we’re about to celebrate a much happier one. On Monday, September 30, the Los Angeles Philharmonic opens its 10th season in Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Odd as it sounds, the two anniversaries are linked tightly together in my mind.
A week or after the 2001 tragedy, I drove to the Music Center in downtown Los Angeles to see the (postponed) opening of Wagner’s opera Lohengrin. I remember being pleasantly surprised by the fact the place was packed. After days of being glued to the television, watching the awful events unfold, it was clear that a whole lot of people felt the need to get out of the house and experience something uplifting.
During the intermission, I walked to the back side of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and spent a few minutes watching the construction going on across the street. It was the site of the new concert hall, still a couple of years from completion.
One fact that had emerged from the nonstop 9/11 news coverage was that the Al Qaeda terrorists, and their Taliban hosts in Afghanistan, loathed music. It was banned from the areas they controlled, presumably because, as control-obsessed religious zealots, they feared the unpredictable emotions it could arouse.
I thought of this as I surveyed the construction site, and thought to myself: What better response could there be to all the horrible destruction than this act of creation? The fact that it was a concert hall, designed for the art form these monsters feared and loathed, seemed incredibly apt — even poetic.
Just over two years later, in October 2003, I was fortunate enough to be in the hall for the first set of subscription concerts: Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a massive Mahler symphony. I’ve been back many times since. It is a long drive for those of us in the Santa Barbara area, but once I pull out of traffic and enter Frank Gehry’s magnificent building, the stress of the commute quickly gives way to something approaching bliss. My thought as I am leaving is, inevitably, “When can I make it back here again?”
In some ways, it feels impossible to believe the hall is 10 years old: The downtown Los Angeles landmark still feels so fresh and daring. It’s that rare building that has become an instant icon — a structure loved by pretty much everyone for its bold beauty and functionality.
Most concert halls — including the refurbished Granada, which, in spite of its imperfections, marks a major upgrade for the city’s musical life — are designed in such a way that they reinforce the notion of hierarchy. The players are perched on an elevated stage at one end of the building, while the audience watches from a distance; the two groups of people occupy distinctly different spaces.
Disney Hall turns that equation on its head. The orchestra is on the lowest level; the seats rise up around it in various tiers, with some situated behind the players. (I sat back there during the premiere of John Adams’ percussion-heavy Gospel According to the Other Mary. It was a kick.) It all feels remarkably intimate, in spite of the fact there are 2,265 seats. Somehow, Geary created the illusion you can reach out and practically touch the performers.
Symbolically, the design feels democratic: It conveys the sense that we’re a community gathering together, and those folks in the middle have something amazing they want to share with us. Its round edges give the building an organic feel, as well as a sense that we’re on the Pacific Rim; the structure seems at one with the wind and the waves.
Oh yeah, and the acoustics are among the finest in the world (in interviews, several musicians have told me as much), and the house band, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, has evolved to become one of the best on the planet. (There are also occasional pop and jazz concerts; a complete schedule can be found online here.
So if you haven’t been to Walt Disney Concert Hall for a while — or ever — now is the time. This season is full of interesting programs from dynamic music director Gustavo Dudamel, including a new oratorio about the trial and death of Socrates from Australian composer Brett Dean on October 12 and 13. Salonen, now music director emeritus, returns October 23 with a realization of Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels.
And in perhaps the most timely and touching concert of the fall, James Conlon will lead the combined forces of several ensembles on November 25 in Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. (It’s part of this year’s Britten centennial celebration.) The pacifist composer wrote this masterpiece in 1962, incorporating poems by Wilfred Owen (who was killed in World War I) into the traditional setting of the requiem mass. It’s arguably the most profound and moving plea for peace in the entire classical repertory. Hearing it is always intensely moving, but it should be even more memorable to do so at this time, in this remarkable hall.