Tickets for the inevitable opening-night fund-raisers cost thousands of dollars, and the temptation is to treat the rich and famous as if they were musical children. When the New Jersey Performing Arts Center opened a few years ago, for instance, the first night on stage was a mix of pop crooning, symphonic bon bons and fancy dancing. It was embarrassing, and it sounded terrible because the orchestra shell wasn't installed.
Disney is different. When a building becomes an international sensation before it opens, when a press corps more than 300 strong descends upon its coming-out party, first impressions take on considerable weight. Disney is so stunning that it has been inspiring sexual metaphors. That's a further worry, since here is another activity where first nights are not always the best. Disney may be a head-turner, but we need time to get to know each other.
The first two of the three Philharmonic galas were uncompromisingly venturesome and inventive, the orchestra determined to show that under Esa-Pekka Salonen it and Frank Gehry's startling architecture belong to each other.
Artistic standards were lowered a notch or two for the third night, the Hollywood gala, but it was not nearly as objectionable as it might have been. Yes, musical security was lax, and Josh Groban slipped through the door, but he only got away with a single earnestly warbled-through song. Overall that night, there was an agreeable mix of spectacle, sentiment and sly humor on a program that could teach the entertainment industry a thing or two about entertainment.
Disney Hall was ready, and it performed splendidly, the worst hitch being fixable problems with the amplification system; they have nothing to do with acoustics. Hearing the hall from several different vantage points, and getting the responses from colleagues, I discovered greater differences in sonic perspective around the hall than I had sensed during the summer rehearsals. But much of this was also due to the first-night syndrome, where the novelty factor makes any kind of studied listening out of the question.
Some colleagues took a strong dislike to being seated too high, too far in the back. Yet they also told me that at the first gala, when the Los Angeles Master Chorale sang the ethereal harmonies of Ligeti's "Lux Aeterna," the effect was magical. I was sitting downstairs close to the singers and got none of the blend. One critic insisted that he found serious problems sitting next to a wall during a rehearsal but then moved a couple seats away and the sound was terrific.
While there is an acoustical consistency to Disney, the actual experience of the hall is different everywhere you sit. There is something very liberating about that notion, but concert halls are not normally known as bastions of democracy, and I did hear an awful lot of competitive grumbling over these three nights.
A gripping 'Spring'
The varying perspectives — acoustic and psychoacoustic — made the intriguing first gala's gradual progression from solo voice to full orchestra somewhat confusing aurally and musically. But few cared by the time we reached Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring," fabulously played. One New York Stravinskyite told me he thought it all too fast, as Salonen and the Philharmonic showed off just what they could do in the hall. But that was also what made its grip on the listener so tight. Such a performance could never have been given in the less immediate, bass-sucking acoustics of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
The second gala, which was devoted to modern music and featured the premiere of John Adams' "The Dharma at Big Sur," greatly impressed East Coast critics. That the Philharmonic would offer an uncompromising program that included Salonen's "LA Variations," Lutoslawski's Cello Concerto (with Yo-Yo Ma as soloist) and Revueltas' "Sensemayá" really was a wake-up call to traditional orchestras that like little about the last 100 years other than their up-to-date paychecks.
For visitors, "Dharma," a concerto for electric violin, was one instance of real controversy. Joshua Kosman, in the San Francisco Chronicle, thought it vaporous and long-winded despite moments of beauty. In the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini suggested that the balance between soloist and orchestra could have been fixed in two minutes during rehearsal. Susan Elliott, on Musical America's respected industry Web site, dismissed the work as a musical midlife crisis, describing it as ranging from "crashingly dull to downright annoying."
I loved it. Sure, the violin may have been a bit loud, and there is no question of its grungy timbre, but that was part of the attraction. Adams wrote this piece as a reflection of his adopted state, under the spell of Beat writer Jack Kerouac and composers Lou Harrison and Terry Riley.
"Write outwards swimming in sea of language to peripheral release and exhaustion," Kerouac once wrote of his spontaneous prose style. "Dharma" is a tribute to that, to the influence of Indian thought on the Beats and on Harrison and Riley. Written for the virtuoso Juilliard-trained jazz violinist Tracy Silverman, the score is an extension of the long sitar-inspired violin lines in Adams' celebrated Violin Concerto, but it is also fresh and new in its sustained languorous beatitude.
Last season, Adams behaved himself writing his Sept. 11 memorial, "On the Transmigration of Souls," for the New York Philharmonic, and nostalgia got the better of him in "My Father Knew Charles Ives" for the San Francisco Symphony. But in "Dharma," he lets his defenses down. California is now home, and more than ever before, the new work makes him one of us. With Silverman's raucously amazing electric violin, with Salonen getting the Philharmonic to glitter like Kerouac's "jewel center of interest," "Dharma" breathed real life into Disney.
This hall is being almost universally hailed as a modern masterpiece, and there is no question that modern music suits it and it suits modern music. Salonen's "LA Variations," given its premiere in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion five years ago, took on a new exuberance in Disney. John Williams' "Soundings," premiered Saturday night, tested the possibilities for spatial effects in the hall: Mission accomplished.
What, though, about the mainstay 18th and 19th century orchestral repertory? Out-of-town critics were left wondering. All they got was eight minutes of Mozart. They will simply have to come back. A couple of showoff nights, no matter how exceptional, are never enough.
In fact, no one got the best look or listen during the galas. Now that the claustrophobia-inducing party tent is finally down, the formal clothes are back in the closet, the celebrities who suck air out of the room have gone home, regular audiences can finally move in. Thursday night, the Philharmonic begins its season with Mahler's Second Symphony. That will be the real opening.