The Salonen-Gehry axis

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For three nights in October, the Los Angeles Philharmonic will get the kind of exposure orchestras dream of, but rarely—if ever—receive. Fewer than 7,000 people will attend the three gala concerts that open the Walt Disney Concert Hall, but the orchestra will be on an international stage: Frank Gehry's extraordinary building has captured the world's attention.

In 1987, Lillian Disney, Walt's widow, gave the Philharmonic $50 million to build a new concert hall because the orchestra, unhappy with the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion's dead sound, needed something better. The musicians' requirements and collective personality helped inspire Gehry's radical design. But with the building being hailed as the successor to the architect's celebrated Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and as a driving force for the redevelopment of downtown, Disney Hall will make a major impact on Los Angeles independent of the Philharmonic. Gehry's architecture put Bilbao on the map, not the art on the museum walls. The Sydney Opera House has lousy acoustics, and its resident opera company and symphony orchestra are not first rate, but that building—dramatically sweeping out into the harbor—is second only to the kangaroo as a symbol for Australia.


FOR THE RECORD
L.A. Philharmonic — An article in Sunday's Los Angeles Times Magazine about the Los Angeles Philharmonic's move to the new Walt Disney Concert Hall, incorrectly stated that conductor Georg Solti never conducted the orchestra. He guest conducted the L.A. Philharmonic in the 1950s.


Suddenly the situation for the Philharmonic has turned around. The question is no longer whether the hall can serve the musicians, but whether the musicians can serve the hall. Audiences for symphonic music are aging and dwindling. Across the nation, orchestra debts are on the rise, and a couple have folded. Art forms are not immortal. The death knell, some suggest, has begun for the symphony orchestra as a product of 19th and early 20th century Eurocentric culture.

No one orchestra can solely turn the tide, and orchestras are far from dead or irrelevant just yet. But change is in the air, and the L.A. Philharmonic, which has a feisty and sometimes sensationalist history of staking out its high-culture territory in the entertainment capital of the world, has designs on being the band of the future. Under Esa-Pekka Salonen, it has become America's most arresting orchestra. Moving into its new hall and polishing its futurist image as a venturesome ensemble with a hip, vibrant music director, the Los Angeles Philharmonic envisions itself the savior of the symphony.

The symphony orchestra is, indeed, still with us. Most cities of any size have at least one, and impressively large numbers of listeners hear them every week. Fifty years ago, a time nostalgically remembered as a Golden Age for the orchestra, there were only a handful that really mattered. Called the "Big Five," the orchestras of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Chicago lorded over the rest. They had the biggest budgets, hired the best players, had the most impressive histories, attracted the most famous conductors, occupied prime real estate in the country's most important centers of culture and dominated American classical music. Now there is considerably more competition.

Today the Los Angeles Philharmonic's budget of about $57 million is second in America only to the Boston Symphony. East Coast orchestras envy the excitement generated by Salonen in Los Angeles. And excellent players can be found just about anywhere. A good night in Atlanta, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Baltimore, Houston or Minnesota can be more rewarding than an average night with one of the old "Big Five."

Under ideal circumstances—the right music and conductor, proper acoustics and ambience, enough rehearsal time—the Los Angeles Philharmonic is a great orchestra. The only problem is that L.A. audiences don't know it. The Chandler sucks up bass and gives the impression of slowing down the speed of sound. Amplification at the Hollywood Bowl robs the orchestra's sound of its physical presence—that's the aural equivalent of carrots left in the microwave until they turn limp. They sizzle, but that's all they do.

The turning point in the Philharmonic's path to its new home came in 1996, when Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic traveled to Paris to play Stravinsky, whom the French think of as one of their own. So do Angelenos. It was as a young Russian émigré in Paris during the second decade of the 20th century that he had his breakthrough with three ballets: "The Firebird," "Petrushka" and, most importantly, "The Rite of Spring." French became Stravinsky's adopted language and culture. But the composer moved on, fleeing World War II Europe, and he ended up living longer in Los Angeles than any other city.

Stravinsky's association with the Los Angeles Philharmonic began when Otto Klemperer became music director in 1933 and almost immediately began playing the composer's music. After Stravinsky moved here, he was often asked to guest conduct the orchestra. His music courses through its collective blood and is such a strong influence on Salonen that the conductor almost bought Stravinsky's home in the hills above the Sunset Strip. Salonen, also a composer, says what stopped him was the thought of writing music with Stravinsky's ghost looking over his shoulder.

The L.A. Philharmonic's Stravinsky performances in France were given in the Théâtre du Châtelet where many of the composer's premieres had taken place. The Philharmonic was spectacular. The Châtelet has an acoustical liveliness the Chandler does not; it was astonishing how Stravinsky's brutal, exciting rhythms became newly energizing. After the Philharmonic's performance of "The Rite of Spring," I felt more alive, more alert, more part of the Parisian street outside the theater. A force was at work, and at that moment I knew that somehow Disney Hall would be built.

Fund-raising for the hall had languished after the riots and economic downturn of the early '90s. By 1996, few believed a hall, with costs rising to $272 million, would ever be built. But Paris galvanized Philharmonic supporters who toured with the orchestra. Patrons who had been inured to the Chandler became converts to the concept of a new hall that promised a radically different approach to acoustics, a hall in which the audience would feel in direct contact with the players. And Disney Hall was resurrected.

Orchestras are a surprisingly little-studied social phenomenon. Nothing else in society, let alone art, is like them. The L.A. Philharmonic maintains 105 full-time players; several more fill in when extra harps, percussion, brass or winds are needed for large or unusually scored works. Many of these highly trained players are of soloist caliber, and some are conductors or composers themselves. Their musical egos tend to range from large to massive, but their job is to work in harmony with 100 other extra-strong personalities at the service of someone else's—the conductor's—will.

Group dynamics among musicians, always complex, have only intensified now that orchestras are no longer exclusive clubs for white males. Cultural cliques, romances and animosities are not uncommon—and they are sometimes absurd. There was the case of one mid-sized American orchestra where two flutists with a mutual hatred shared a music stand for years but refused to speak to each other.

But the most mysterious aspect of an orchestra's collective psyche is the way it processes its history. The Los Angeles Philharmonic has players from many parts of the world, players with diverse backgrounds, some of whom remember Stravinsky and some not yet born when he died in 1971. But there is a collective instinct in their fingers for his complicated rhythms and abrupt phrasing, the composer's style having passed down through generations of players. It's the same in other places with other composers or conductors. The New York Philharmonic remains, on some level, Leonard Bernstein's orchestra. The Vienna Philharmonic would have us believe that Mozart is among the living.

All orchestras must be sonic chameleons as well. In the four decades that I have closely observed the Los Angeles Philharmonic, it has, broadly speaking, mirrored the personality of its music director. Under a flashy Zubin Mehta it was a Technicolor band with blazing brass, silken sleek strings and tremendous energy. The poetic Italian conductor Carlo Maria Giulini brought out its soul, going after a richer, thicker, darker quality. André Previn favored the more restrained mauve shades of a British orchestra, but one that could swing. In the 12 seasons that Esa-Pekka Salonen has led the Los Angeles Philharmonic, it has become bright and brilliant sounding in a way that suits modern music and modern ears attuned to the exacting digital age.

But this orchestra's musical DNA is older. And deep in its checkered, colorful past lie some of the reasons why it is well situated for the future.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic originated as a rich man's toy. In 1919, William Andrews Clark plunked down $200,000 of his copper-baron father's money to hire first-chair players from the East Coast and steal the rest of the orchestra from the floundering Los Angeles Symphony. Fabulously rich, culturally sophisticated, civic-minded and plenty quirky, Clark had studied violin in Paris and started the Saint-Saëns String Quartet in Los Angeles. He was eager for Los Angeles to catch up with Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, St. Louis and San Francisco, all of which all had major orchestras.

For 15 years, Clark was the Philharmonic's exclusive supporter, spending a total of more than $3 million on the institution. It was his band. He sometimes liked to sit with the second violins and even conduct on occasion—to the dismay of his music directors.

But we needn't be too hard on Clark's dilettantism. He gave his superb English literature collection to UCLA, and he was the only other patron—after Major Henry Lee Higginson, the founder of the Boston Symphony in 1881—to single-handedly pay for the creation of a major American orchestra.

Clark's dream had been to lure Rachmaninoff as his first music director, but he was forced to settle upon Walter Henry Rothwell, a British conductor who had been an assistant to Mahler in Hamburg. The capable if unimaginative Rothwell remained with the orchestra until his sudden death in 1927. He liked to study scores on the sand and one warm day he set out for the beach, getting only as far as Alvarado Street, when he had a heart attack and died at the wheel.

Salonen is not the first Finn to lead the L.A. Philharmonic, but he has little in common with countryman Georg Schneevoigt, Rothwell's successor. An official 1963 Philharmonic history describes Schneevoigt as "flaccid," "paunchy," "phlegmatic," "plodding," with "little or no sense of direction so far as discipline was concerned." He was said to have been so emotional an interpreter that he cried when conducting works by his friend Sibelius.

In poor health and at a low point of his career, Schneevoigt didn't last long, resigning during his second season. He was followed by the hot-headed Artur Rodzinski, a young assistant to Leopold Stokowski in Philadelphia. Rodzinski restored discipline to the orchestra and reportedly led fiery performances, but for him the Philharmonic served as little more than a stepping stone to more prestigious orchestras. He didn't stay long either, and the city seems to have left more of a mark on him than he on it. Being in L.A. encouraged his weaknesses for occult religion and health fads.

When the famed German conductor Otto Klemperer arrived in 1933, Clark had nearly exhausted his fortune and was looking, without success, for others to step in and support the Philharmonic. A maestro of Klemperer's stature, he hoped, would help raise funds. Klemperer had been the force behind the experimental Kroll Opera in Berlin. But with the rise to power of the National Socialist Party, the Kroll was shut down and Klemperer, a Catholic, was then blackballed from the more conservative State Opera. He needed a quick exit from Germany. Los Angeles was available.

He didn't like what he found. The pay wasn't very good. The players cheerfully called him "Klempie," which he hated. The city sprawl annoyed him, and the entertainment industry dismayed him. Clark's eccentricities, including his preference to breakfast in the nude, freaked him out. Klemperer wanted nothing to do with the Hollywood Bowl. He regularly threw temper tantrums, stormed out of rehearsals and had to be coaxed back.

Despite it all, Klemperer adapted, and his six years here put the Los Angeles Philharmonic on the map. Their earliest recording is a national radio broadcast from the Pasadena Civic Auditorium on New Year's Day, 1934. Less than three months after he had begun working with the Philharmonic, Klemperer drives the players to their limits in an intense, grippingly dramatic reading of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. The orchestra is not quite world class; there are intonation and ensemble problems. But the agile orchestra demonstrates great rhythmic vibrancy and shifts gears very quickly. Treating old music as if it were new, it sounds fresh and spirited, not tied down to tradition. This is clearly the ancestor of today's L.A.'s Philharmonic.

The orchestra had reason to play as if every note mattered. Clark was nearly broke and insisted that he would withdraw his support after the 1933-34 season. He died unexpectedly at age 57 in July of 1934, leaving the Philharmonic unendowed, and the lack of a meaningful endowment has been a problem for the organization ever since. But it has also contributed to the orchestra's need to be ever-responsive to the public and an institution receptive to new and unconventional ideas. From its start in 1920, the Hollywood Bowl became the people's concert site, a venue that could help support the Philharmonic's winter season.

Shortly before Clark's death, the Southern California Symphony Assn. was founded. Its president, Harvey S. Mudd, a wealthy mining engineer, made it his mission to save the Philharmonic, personally guaranteeing Klemperer's salary for the next three years. But further money was scarce. The public had gotten used to not having to support the orchestra, and the Depression was in full swing. Mudd began the Philharmonic's tradition of wanting to take the stuffiness out of high culture. He proposed a benefit USC/UCLA football game and Philharmonic racing days at Santa Anita, but he was overruled and forced to begin a painfully slow process of more traditional fund-raising.

Klemperer gradually warmed to Los Angeles. He relented about conducting at the Bowl. He settled down with his wife, Johanna, raised his two children (one of whom, Werner, became a well-known Hollywood actor) and socialized with the German émigré community that was growing during the '30s. Then he went off the deep end.

A manic-depressive, he began a long manic phase during which he took up with another conductor's wife, haunted risqué Hollywood nightclubs, spent money irresponsibly and often turned violent. Following his 1939 Bowl season, he was incorrectly diagnosed in Boston as having a brain tumor and underwent surgery, which led to some paralysis of his face. His psychiatric state worsened, causing him to be institutionalized. When he escaped from one hospital, the New York Times ran a front page story with the headline, "Klemperer gone: sought as insane." After he was caught and arrested in New Jersey, the Herald Tribune ran a photo of him behind bars.

Klemperer continued to conduct, occasionally in L.A., but he never got his job back with the Philharmonic. After six seasons of guest conductors, Mudd finally settled upon Alfred Wallenstein, who had been a cellist with the orchestra when it began. Wallenstein's 11 years as music director were bland ones. A respectable but not exciting conductor, he maintained a decent level of orchestral professionalism. Jascha Heifetz and Arthur Rubinstein lived in Los Angeles and recorded concertos with Wallenstein. Those were among the most lackluster recordings of these great soloists' careers.

By the mid-'50s, the philharmonic started to emerge from its doldrums. Dorothy Buffum Chandler, the wife of Los Angeles Times publisher Norman Chandler, took over management of the orchestra and initiated a famous fund-raising campaign to build the Music Center. She twisted the arms of county supervisors. She extracted large checks from socialites, then sent them out on the streets with paper bags asking for dollar-bill contributions. At the height of his fame, Van Cliburn played a benefit at the Hollywood Bowl. But that wasn't enough for Buffy, as she was widely called. In a letter from Cliburn to Mrs. Chandler (now in the Music Center archives), the pianist—evidently berated by Buffy—cravenly apologizes for not having done more, and includes a sizable check.

In 1956, a warm, highly regarded Dutch conductor, Eduard van Beinum, was appointed music director. The orchestra and the city took to him immediately. But during his second season here, he suffered a heart attack and died in Amsterdam, where he also led the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

Mrs. Chandler next signed the fiery Hungarian conductor, Georg Solti, then music director of the Royal Opera in London. He had never conducted the Philharmonic, but he was clearly a conductor on the rise. Mrs. Chandler, who was not a music professional, also signed the even younger rising star, Zubin Mehta, as assistant conductor. Solti resigned in anger for not being consulted and never did conduct the Philharmonic. In the fall of 1962, Mehta, 26, became music director.

Mehta remained with the Philharmonic for 17 years. He was often accused of being a superficial showman, all glamour and no grit. He got reams of bad press, especially from this newspaper, and not all of it was undeserved. But in retrospect, Mehta, more than anyone else, gave the Philharmonic its personality and paved the way for its future. Born in Bombay, he was exotic yet, ironically, he was the first music director of the Philharmonic to show a real connection with Los Angeles, the first to think of the orchestra as an active participant in its community and its times. L.A. was a unique blend of low and high art, of Schoenberg and show biz. So was Mehta.

The Dorothy Chandler pavilion opened on Dec. 6, 1964. Though not as big news as the opening of Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center two years earlier, it was a major national story nonetheless. Dorothy Chandler made the cover of Time magazine. The acoustics in the Pavilion, so disliked now, were hailed as being as good as might be expected for a 3,100-seat multipurpose auditorium. The snappy Nehru-style jackets and hats that the ushers wore in tribute to Mehta were a smash.

Mehta opened the Chandler with what was already his trademark blend of seriousness and splash. Heifetz, the most famous violinist of the day, played the Beethoven Violin Concerto, and Mehta conducted Respighi's "Feste Romane." An LP recording was made of the first concert and the playing is quite good. But what was most important was that the Los Angeles Philharmonic now had an image. Seen as something of a playboy, the dashing Indian conductor was a fixture in the gossip columns. By 1968, he too had made the cover of Time and also was the subject of a long profile in The New Yorker. He secured the Philharmonic's recording contract for a series of popular sonic spectaculars. The orchestra improved dramatically. Mehta prized the Vienna Philharmonic sound and wanted to re-create it, but with a modern punch. He persuaded orchestra members to buy prized string instruments and upgraded the brass section.

Many of the Philharmonic's activities in the late '60s and early '70s, when the orchestra took some calculated forays into the counterculture, look a little foolish now. A "Contempo" series of new music was advertised as "Listen! See!! Feel!!!" There was the Zubin and Zappa act, when the Philharmonic collaborated with Frank Zappa in his rock opera "200 Motels" at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion. The orchestra appeared at anti-Vietnam War rallies and took its message to alternative radio stations, such as Pacifica's KPFK, inviting hippies to the Music Center. Mehta tried to be cool and became known as "Zubie baby."

Some of those antics were little more than crass commercialism, itself something new and different for the high-falutin' world of the symphony. The hype rose over the top. Bach's "St. John Passion" was touted as "The Original Jesus Christ Superstar." But as a college student at the time, I can attest that the Philharmonic and Mehta got our attention, if not always our respect. We attended concerts—a wide cross-section of kids turned on to Janis Joplin, John Coltrane, John Cage and Josquin de Pres. Smoking was permitted at the Bowl in those days, and not all of it was tobacco.

The marketing mastermind was Ernest Fleischmann, who became general manager in 1969 and remained with the orchestra for some 30 years. A conductor and natural showman with an impressive British (South African, really) accent, Fleischmann was an extraordinary talent scout and a tireless promoter. Domineering and uncompromising, his mission was to transform a good second-rate orchestra into a first-rate one and get the world to notice. He succeeded. Next came the grandiose plan for the orchestra of the future.

The first step was to bolster the orchestra's and Los Angeles' cultural credentials by persuading the reticent, revered, numinous Italian conductor Carlo Maria Giulini to succeed Mehta when he was appointed to the New York Philharmonic in 1978. Giulini led beautiful, richly textured, probing performances of Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and Verdi. The orchestra and audience adored him. But most important of all for L.A.'s image was that Giulini also brought a contract with the prestigious German label, Deutsche Grammophon. The world, at last, began to take this orchestra seriously.

For all that, Giulini was nearly as Hollywood as Mehta. He was tall, handsome and Armani-clad, yet art was his religion, and he conducted only those works that he felt had profound spiritual value. He stayed just long enough to give the orchestra its needed injection of class, and then Fleischmann swung the pendulum back to Hollywood with the appointment of André Previn, who had been a highly successful film composer and jazz pianist before turning to conducting in the '60s.

But Previn wanted little reminder of his Hollywood days. A four-time Academy Award-winner, he alienated the industry when he told The Times that he didn't even know where his Oscars were. As a pianist, he had come to prefer Mozart and he refused to play jazz—the closest he would come was Gershwin. A consummate musician, he focused on refinement, not gaudy display. The Previn years were not the disaster they are often perceived to have been, but they were inconsistent. At times he was distant and uninvolved. But when Previn was on, he could be not just satisfying, but convincing. Still, he was the wrong guy and he clashed repeatedly with Fleischmann, who finally pulled a "Buffy" on him.

Fleischmann first noticed Esa-Pekka Salonen in 1983 when the young Finn stepped in at the last minute for Michael Tilson Thomas at the London Symphony Orchestra and conducted Mahler's Third Symphony. He was a 25-year-old unknown modernist Finnish composer who had begun conducting on the side because no one else was going to perform his music and because he had a flare for it. Fleischmann immediately engaged Salonen to guest conduct the Philharmonic, and then brought him back every year.

Without consulting Previn, Fleischmann invited Salonen to be a principal guest conductor and to take the Philharmonic on a tour of Japan in the summer of '89. Previn resigned in a huff. Salonen, at age 34, become the orchestra's 10th music director in 1992.

He was not, however, Fleischmann's first choice to succeed Previn. Simon Rattle was. Fleischmann had been an early champion of Rattle, first inviting him to Los Angeles when the British conductor was barely in his 20s and making him a principal guest conductor of the orchestra, with Michael Tilson Thomas, during the Giulini years. But Rattle wanted to remain in Britain, where he led the City of Birmingham Orchestra.

Salonen was a risky hire. He had never intended upon a conducting career and was serious about his composition. He didn't have a huge repertoire. He had not yet matured as an interpreter. But he was a star product of Finland's remarkable music education system, and an enormously gifted musician with huge potential for growth. Ironically, he was almost too Hollywood. The Philharmonic was agog with marketing Salonen's looks, and there was no assurance that the attention would not go to his head.

Since his debut 19 years ago, Salonen has conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic every season, and he's hired about a third of the orchestra's players during his 12-year tenure as music director. He has taken the orchestra on tour dozens of times and made numerous recordings. At 45, he continues to be a youthful symbol for L.A., even though he has been with the Philharmonic longer than any other music director currently leading a major American symphony orchestra. Under him it has become the best it has ever been.

Salonen delivers modernity, but not the sort that was first predicted when he arrived in Los Angeles. As a European intellectual and high-modernist composer, Salonen was glamorous but perceived as being on the cold side, an analytical conductor more at home with Messiaen than Mozart. At first, he proved unusually cautious, unwilling to yank the orchestra into outright newness, yet not blindly trusting tradition either. He seemed less intent upon changing the orchestra into something different than magnifying what it already was. The Mehta sock, the robust Giulini string tone and the Previn gloss weren't so much replaced as given new significance.

But over time the Philharmonic witnessed a steady technical improvement, most notably in the quickening of its reflexes. Salonen has a remarkably agile mind and bone-dry wit. He tends to perceive things from more than one angle. In rehearsal he concentrates on technique, but at any moment may change expectations by asking for a quirky detail or making a joke.

Once seen as shy and distant, Salonen has embraced his listeners. His occasional talks to the audience are insightful and entertaining, especially in his ability to describe a difficult piece of music in a way that is as intriguing to the cognoscenti as it is to newcomers. As a composer, he has found a voice that is vibrant and complex, yet newly vital and immediate. Each piece he writes seems more personal than the last.

In fact, so strong now is the identification of the L.A. Philharmonic with its innovative and stylish conductor that the orchestra's greatest worry is how to keep the act alive once he is gone. Salonen's contract extends through 2006, and few expect that he will stay longer, after 14 seasons with the orchestra. He is in demand everywhere and his career as a composer is taking off. He will be a nearly impossible act to follow, although there are a couple of young American conductors—most notably Santa Monica-born David Robertson—who might prove to be good choices.

But first, a new home beckons. Though its conception predates Salonen's tenure, Disney Hall has his musical fingerprints all over it, from Gehry's playful yet practical architecture to Yasuhisa Toyota's acoustical design, meant to make the audience feel a tangible orchestral sound. Salonen, the great musical magnifier, has been presented with a powerful microscope. Attention is guaranteed. The rest is up to the orchestra.

Mark Swed is The Times' music critic.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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