How the Music Center broke new ground for major arts institutions

Mark Swed
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Music Critic
The past, present and future of L.A.'s Music Center as it turns 50

First came the national anthem played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, then a resplendent fanfare by Richard Strauss.

But when 22 brass players and a pair of timpanists proclaimed the opening of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Dec. 6, 1964, that fanfare, originally meant to celebrate Vienna, now greeted a new concert hall in L.A. and what felt like a new city.


Music Center: The Nov. 16 Arts & Books section's report on the Music Center's 50th anniversary included several photographs that should have been credited to the Otto Rothschild Collection/The Music Center Archives or Welton Becket & Associates/The Music Center Archives. —

Los Angeles wasn't really all that much changed by a modern concert hall on Bunker Hill; we shortchange the city's exceptional arts history in thinking so. But not only had Los Angeles built the nation's second major modern performing arts center, after New York's Lincoln Center, we built it our way.

And the world noticed.

Time Magazine put Dorothy Buffum Chandler — the wife of former Los Angeles Times publisher Norman Chandler and the force behind the fundraising for the Music Center — on the cover.

"It works," the New York Times trumpeted, which was a lot more complimentary than its scathing response to the New York Philharmonic's acoustically troubled new home that had opened two years earlier at Lincoln Center.

L.A. was, of course, still L.A. Movie stars turned out for the opening-night gala, and the Music Center had its distinctive touches.

Finding the Music Center a lot more fun than Lincoln Center, the San Francisco Chronicle took special delight in the stylish "orchid-raspberry-orange-red" Nehru coats the ushers wore in tribute to the L.A. Phil's glamorous 28-year-old Bombay, India-born music director, Zubin Mehta.

Yet along with the fun and celebrity, L.A. culture was suddenly seen as something more than a shallow haven for Hollywood and sun worshipping.

Fifty years later we can look back and see the extent to which the Music Center shaped Southern California's cultural identity. It got not only the world to take us more seriously but we began to take ourselves more seriously.

The Music Center worked. But it worked differently from the country's other major arts institutions, which was its greatest glory in 1964 and is its greatest challenge now.

The original Music Center, of which the Pavilion was the keystone (with the two theaters, the Ahmanson and Mark Taper Forum, to follow in 1967), happened to be the achievement of women. Women — and Dorothy Chandler in particular — set out to do what L.A. businessmen and politicians failed time and again to do, which was to establish a centralized Los Angeles County facility for music and theater, that traditional symbol of a teaming, great metropolis.

But Chandler, or Buff, as she was widely called, also meant it as a rebuke to the politics and warmongering of men. It would be called the Music Center: A Living Memorial to Peace.

Ostensibly, the Pavilion was built because the L.A. Phil needed an up-to-date hall of its own. Founded in 1919, the orchestra had played for all but its first year in Philharmonic Auditorium at 5th and Olive streets. Owned by Temple Baptist Church, the baptismal came down on Thursdays and went up on Sundays, as one Philharmonic patron complained.

Otto Klemperer, however, hated the hall. Hired in 1934 to put the L.A. Phil on the map, the great German conductor considered an orchestra sharing a home with a church provincial and intrusive, and he immediately began agitating for a dedicated hall for the orchestra. Beginning in 1935 there were a number of failed attempts at downtown projects that would include, in various configurations, an opera house, sports arena, concert hall, museum and convention center.

But the timing was wrong: War loomed on the horizon.

With the end of World War II , the project was revived as a combined arts, convention and sports center west of Pershing Square. But three consecutive bond measures failed at the polls to get the necessary two-thirds majority.

In 1955, Chandler, vice president of The Times and the most powerful woman in the city, stepped in.

She began by strong-arming county supervisors. She shamed celebrities into big donations; she cajoled pennies from schoolchildren. She formed the Blue Ribbon 400, an elite support group of women whose financial contributions made the Music Center possible, and it ultimately became an essential part of the fabric of the institution.

Chandler hired the Music Center's architect, Welton Becket, and the Pavilion's acoustician, Paul Veneklasen. She selected the site — rejecting an original proposal near what is now L.A. Live for something closer to The Times building and the Chandler family's real estate holdings. She also took over the L.A. Phil, becoming its guiding force as board president.

It was Chandler who appointed Mehta music director in 1962, and her original goal was a Memorial Pavilion for the orchestra. Only after a summer in London in 1960, where she developed a taste for theater, did she add the other two theaters to the plan.

A music center it was. Even theater was to be run on the nonprofit institutionalized symphony orchestra model, something never tried before in America. That meant a populist Ahmanson and an experimental, smaller Taper that could serve as a chamber music hall as well as a playhouse.

The whole thing was then to be administered in a complicated three-part organizational arrangement that included the Music Center operating company and a unified fund, all overseen by Los Angeles County. The constituent companies remained, as a head of the operating company once put it, "frightfully independent."

That was all the L.A. Phil needed to begin its visionary half-century march toward becoming the country's most artistically far-reaching, popular and economically successful orchestra. The Music Center helped give Mehta the visibility that would help him and the orchestra thrive.

He became known as Zubie Baby (and the Swinging Symphonist), and L.A. became a symbol of a classical music new wave. While not exactly part of the politically and artistically conservative Dorothy Chandler's original strategy, Mehta made the Music Center not only noticed but hip.

So did Gordon Davidson, a feisty young director Chandler took a chance on to form the Center Theatre Group. The Ahmanson may have opened innocuously enough in 1965 with "Man of La Mancha," but Davidson threw down the gauntlet with John Whiting's "The Devils," based on Aldous Huxley's novel about religious hysteria generated by a sexually obsessed nun and a libertine priest in 17th century France. The county supervisors attempted to cancel the controversial show. But the Music Center stood behind artistic independence.

And through a string of successes and failures, Davidson made Center Theatre one of the most important companies in the country, developing "Zoot Suit," "In the Manner of Robert Oppenheimer," "Angels in America" and other now contemporary American classics.

The final constituent was Music Center Opera Assn., an office, not an opera company.

In 1966, New York City Opera entered into an agreement with the Music Center for an annual monthlong residency in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, bringing that first season contemporary Argentine composer Ginastera's "Don Rodrigo," starring a new tenor, Plácido Domingo. But it wasn't until 1986 that Music Center Opera (now Los Angeles Opera) came into being with Verdi's "Otello," starring Domingo, who is now head of the company.

By its 25th anniversary in 1989, the Music Center's fame and prestige, its international, national and, most meaningful of all, local significance had become a given, and L.A.'s reputation as an arts magnet couldn't be ignored.

The Music Center was the catalyst. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art opened a few months after the Music Center, and that one-two arts punch was considerable.

But after a quarter century, the glow had begun to fade. The idea of an arts complex sitting high on Bunker Hill created an inaccessible elitist aura. The resident companies bickered more than they cooperated. The L.A. Phil was fed up with sharing its hall and now admitted that the acoustics in the Pavilion weren't ideal after all and built its own home.

Walt Disney Concert Hall, which opened in 2003, has added incalculable luster to the Music Center. It has stirred the L.A. Phil and the Master Chorale, the other occupant, into taking imaginative risks. One of the world's greatest concert halls and the world's most celebrated 21st century building, Disney has become an architectural symbol for L.A. at large. But it stands physically, administratively (it is run by the L.A. Phil) and aesthetically apart from the rest of the Music Center.

Meanwhile, the Pavilion, now shared by L.A. Opera and a handful of touring dance companies, is often dark. It is no longer adequate for L.A. Opera, a progressive company, but while a major refurbishment has been promised for a decade, there has been nothing of Dorothy Chandler's fundraising moxie to make that happen.

A proposal last decade to redo the center by Frank Gehry, including lowering it to street level, was not approved. Grand Park, connecting the Music Center with City Hall, has been a wan success. The Center Theatre Group lost its brashness after Davidson's retirement.

But mainly there is no center in this Music Center. Unlike Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and especially the Southbank Centre in London, the Music Center produces no festivals nor includes institution-wide programming.

Fifty years on, Los Angeles wouldn't be Los Angeles without the Music Center. Today's Music Center is not, nor should it be, yesterday's Music Center. Even the name was changed after Buffy left, to the Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles County, which no one uses.

It's still the Music Center. But what kind of music center will it be and what will it mean to Los Angeles when it reaches the century mark? A search is underway for a new president and chief executive officer.

When talking up the Music Center, Dorothy Chandler liked to say she wanted what money could buy and what it couldn't. These days money speaks more loudly. Let the search be expanded to include what it can't buy — a new vision.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times