Sounds of relief are audible at Disney Hall

The polished steel exterior of the Walt Disney Concert Hall is already familiar. Inside, the paint is dry, and few hard hats are in evidence. But one lingering question has been the most important: How will it sound?

On Monday morning, that question was finally, if not conclusively, answered when the Los Angeles Philharmonic had its first rehearsal in what will become its home in October.

A long tuning process for the hall lies ahead, and the musicians will need time to learn to play there, but both the orchestra's music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and acoustician, Yasuhisa Toyota, acknowledged breathing huge sighs of relief over the initial results.

What was unmistakable about the orchestral sound at Monday's rehearsal was its plentiful bass, crystalline clarity and forceful immediacy.

The Disney rehearsal began with a closed working session, but the last 45 minutes — a mini-concert of short selections by Mozart, Beethoven and Stravinsky — were open to about 125 board members, donors who had given at least $5 million to the hall and Philharmonic staffers and dignitaries. Introducing the second movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, Salonen told the listeners that they now would hear "the newly discovered bass frequency of the Los Angeles Philharmonic."

After the rehearsal, the Finnish conductor, who has headed the Philharmonic since 1992, confessed that he woke up early Monday morning, his 45th birthday, "more nervous than I had been for a very long time — a lot was at stake."

Even though it appears inevitable that Frank Gehry's striking design of the $272-million concert hall will make it a downtown landmark, it was built specifically to address the bass-shy, muffled, lifeless acoustics in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where the Philharmonic has played since 1964.

In 1986, Walt Disney's widow, Lillian, donated $50 million to the orchestra for a new venue across the street from the Chandler. But as costs skyrocketed and the local economy faltered in the early 1990s, the project was nearly abandoned. It was only in 1996, after some of the orchestra's wealthy subscribers and board members heard in an acoustically lively Parisian venue just what a visceral effect the Philharmonic could have, that there was a renewal of support.

On Monday, to show just how different the Disney will sound from the Pavilion, Salonen chose familiar classics. With the last movement of Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony, he said, he was interested in revealing how well the woodwinds could blend into the sonic picture; he joked that the mix had "a good nose and a long finish." The second movement of Beethoven's Seventh demonstrated that the strings can play whisper-soft. The Russian Dance from Stravinsky's "Petrushka" showed that Disney can handle the resources of a large orchestra.

The early results of a hall always are suspect. There are numerous factors that affect the sound, ranging from how musicians play to the fact that the materials have not yet settled. The concrete in Disney won't be fully dry for two years. The Philharmonic bass players must learn not to force their sound the way they did in the Chandler. The players Monday also were rusty, having just returned from a four-week vacation.

Nor is the ear to be trusted right away. In new surroundings, everything can sound new and different as well, and Disney's interior is intended to have a radically different acoustical effect from the Chandler's. Gehry's design, especially with the skewed organ pipes that look like a container of French fries glued above the stage, is likely to produce a psycho-acoustical reaction in many a first-time listener.

But the sonic differences are real. Toyota is a specialist in the so-called vineyard-style auditorium, in which the audience is seated on different terraces surrounding the stage. In such halls, there can be a feeling of direct contact between musicians and listeners, but the enhanced sonic presence can also be discomfiting and even overwhelming.

From his experience in designing such halls in Tokyo and Sapporo, Japan, Toyota says that one thing he has discovered is that "the first sounds you hear are always the worst."

But neither the acoustician nor Salonen was guarded in his judgments Monday. One rule of acoustics is that it is easier to take away than supply. If the sound is too bright or too loud, one can tone things down by adding absorbing materials to the walls and behind the stage. But if the bass is missing, there is little that can be done.

Salonen said Monday that the hall's powerful bass resonance was the greatest birthday present he could have received. Hearing an orchestra with and without bass, he said, is like the difference between a color and a black-and-white picture.He also was taken with how sensitive the hall was, allowing him to easily hear inner lines, such as a second clarinet part, often lost in the mix. During the private part of the rehearsal, Salonen said, the orchestra played a part of "Petrushka" that features a triangle, and the brilliance of it stopped everyone cold.

"No one could believe that all that sound was coming from a little triangle," he said.

Like musical instruments, concert halls require tuning by adjustments in how different frequencies are not only absorbed but also reflected. As far as the conductor is concerned, however, he now needs to do only some fine-tuning, and he said he was uncertain how much of that would be of the hall and how much of the orchestra.

"The Philharmonic still shows the weight of the Pavilion," he said, "and we must now learn to work in sync with the new hall rather than struggle against the old one as we used to." But he described that process as mostly intuitive.

Toyota said he too felt that only minor adjustments would be needed and that he had no idea what they might be. Characteristically, he described the very first sounds the orchestra made as the worst, but once he heard how softly the strings could play in the Beethoven slow movement, he was satisfied.

What he will do next, he said, is nothing: "I will wait and listen."

Some white acoustical tiles were tacked onto the walls of the concert hall Monday. If they are to be permanent fixtures, then Gehry must design versions that will fit into the decor. But there are nearly four months until the first opening gala Oct. 23, and Toyota is in no hurry.

Neither is the Philharmonic. Salonen, who flew in from the Finnish capital, Helsinki, on Sunday for the rehearsal, will not return to Southern California until late this month, when he is scheduled to conduct the Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl. Rehearsals then will begin again and continue irregularly throughout the summer.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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