Events staged by the L.A. Philharmonic typically conjure up stately performances to audiences decked out in evening wear. But the times -- not to mention the tunes -- they are a-changin' as the L.A. Phil kicks off its Minimalist Jukebox concert series Saturday with an all-night electronic music performance featuring the U.K. forefathers of ambient house, the Orb, along with local artists Dntel, John Tejada and Boom Bip.
Early last month, at the end of a Los Angeles Philharmonic rehearsal in the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the atmosphere was unusually lighthearted. Deborah Borda, the orchestra's general manager, took me aside to show me something. Workmen were finishing the final details, and every day there was another new one. "Look at our latest addition," she said, pointing to mousetraps under some of the seats.
That major construction would rouse a few rodents was to be expected. But Borda was hardly unaware of the symbolism. The Times had just run an article about a prickly backlash to the love affair brewing between Los Angeles and its stellar new building, and one angry performance artist had proposed burning a certain iconic mouse in effigy out front on opening night Thursday.
"They're actually very tiny and cute," Borda said, laughing off the uninvited visitors. "They don't look anything like Mickey."
Yasuhisa Toyota, the hall's cryptic acoustician -- who doesn't like to reveal too many trade secrets -- then suggested that I had just discovered one secret.
"They are not mousetraps," he quipped. "They're sound traps."
Such kidding around was a sign that a major hurdle -- in fact, the major nervous-making hurdle -- had been cleared. The orchestra had had a number of opportunities to try out the building over the previous two months, and no one any longer was even faintly worried about the acoustics. That mousetrap day was the first time Mahler had been played in the hall, and his First Symphony had sounded so alluringly rich, colorful and thrillingly immediate that it had put everybody in an excellent mood.
This was a significantly more relaxed attitude than what I encountered when I first asked to observe the hall's tuning process. Every concert hall requires a period of adjustment. Acousticians typically allow for the last-minute addition of dampening material if a hall proves too bright or of reflecting surfaces if there are dead spots. Some of today's more technology-inclined acousticians design movable walls and sound chambers so that, with the touch of a button, the reverberation time, or echo, can change between the extremes of a dry chamber music venue and a booming church. Orchestras must learn to play in any new room, and that takes practice.
The first impression will, Toyota contends, always be the worst. If you don't know what to listen for -- and sometimes even if you do -- you can't initially tell what a hall will ultimately sound like. With everything on the line -- for Disney Hall to be Frank Gehry's architectural masterpiece, it also has to be Toyota's acoustical masterpiece -- that first contact between the orchestra and its new home, the Philharmonic insisted, had to be an intimate affair.
Indeed, three years earlier, when I initially suggested that, however private, such a moment was also historic and should be documented, Borda countered with the offer of a first-class plane ticket to Paris. She wasn't serious, of course, but that did indicate roughly the number of miles from the hall she felt the press belonged.
As time passed, the Philharmonic made some critical decisions. Believing that the hall would be finished by spring 2003, it postponed the opening until the fall so that it would have the summer to undertake the tuning process. Fresh in its mind was the fiasco that resulted when the Philadelphia Orchestra was forced to open Verizon Hall in fall 2001 months before construction was complete. Only after 18 months of performing in Verizon, an adjustable hall, did that orchestra feel happy with the acoustical settings.
Given the extraordinary international interest in Gehry and the architect's underlying philosophy that Disney be a welcoming, open venue for the city, the Philharmonic ultimately, if not exactly readily, agreed to risk an unusual amount of exposure and allow me into all its tuning rehearsals -- nearly two dozen, as it turned out. Only the orchestra's first hour in the hall would be off limits. This would be a rare opportunity to report on the arcane science of acoustics.
After more than three months of rehearsals, however, what has been altered in the hall can be summarized in two words: hardly anything.
"We've been very conservative," music director Esa-Pekka Salonen said a week ago before leading a public rehearsal. "The basic quality is so good, I would hate to mess it up."
Toyota's standard response to the question of what he has been doing at rehearsals is, "Nothing at all." He is always there, and always listening. But he takes no notes. His only equipment is a small digital camera that he carries everywhere.
And yet, there was a striking change between the way the orchestra sounded at its first rehearsal and at its second, three weeks later.
After the private hour the day of the first rehearsal, the Philharmonic invited about 125 listeners -- board members, $5-million donors, staff members and a couple of journalists -- to hear a run-through of the finale of Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony, the slow movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony and the Russian Dance from Stravinsky's "Petrushka." The sound was detailed, well balanced and gloriously full in the bass -- a blessed improvement over the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where the orchestra performed for 40 years.
But it wasn't perfect. The orchestra was stiff. It had returned that day from a month's vacation, and it hadn't performed with its music director for seven weeks. Salonen had flown in from Europe especially for the rehearsal, arriving the night before. Like an expectant father, he said, he had been unable to sleep. It was also his 45th birthday.
When the orchestra finally got its next chance in Disney, it was to rehearse Ravel's lusciously orchestrated ballet, "Daphnis and Chloe," which Salonen would conduct at the Hollywood Bowl the next evening. This time, the hall miraculously came to life. Earlier, the orchestra's sound, wonderful as it was, had felt confined to stage. Now a new sonic dimension had been added, and every square inch of air in Disney vibrated merrily.
Toyota says that he had never experienced such an acoustical difference between a first and second rehearsal in any of the halls he designed in his native Japan. Salonen could hardly believe his ears. To his amazement, he discovered that there were wrong notes in the printed parts of the Ravel that sit on the players' stands. The orchestra has owned these scores for decades, but in the Chandler no conductor had ever heard the inner details well enough to notice the errors.
So striking was the change that Toyota says the players began asking him what he had done. One violinist was convinced that the acoustician had raised the ceiling by several feet. Another thought it had been lowered. The roof is unmovable, secured by enough steel to withstand a major earthquake.
The change was entirely in the orchestra. Here and there, Salonen held the brass back, but most of what happened was intuitive on the players' part. In the Chandler, many orchestra members needed to push unnaturally to be heard; in Disney, they can relax. Even so, the players continued to fall back on old habits.
"After years in the Pavilion, they have developed a muscular memory," Salonen explained. "And that is much harder to reprogram than conscious memory. It's just like what happens when you move the night table by your bed a few inches, and you keep hitting your toe on it for months afterward."
Still, most of the players I spoke with contended that it was exceptionally easy to adapt to Disney. The percussionist Raynor Carrol said he could finally just play naturally. A horn player, William Lane, said the same thing. Because of the transparency of Disney, everything is exposed. The bassoonist Michele Grego noted that she must be especially careful in preparing her reeds. They must be perfect, since any reed noise will stand out, so well does her deep, mellow instrument, often buried in the Chandler, now project.
The other difference Grego noted was that, with the audience surrounding her, she also now must watch how she cuts her hair in the back; it's not a great hall for a bad hair day. Lane smiled and said that having the audience peering over their shoulders meant that the brass, which sits silently for long stretches in some works, won't be able to prop books or magazines on their music stands.
The Los Angeles Master Chorale will be the other resident company in Disney, and although it has had a more limited amount of rehearsal in the hall, its experience has been similar to the Philharmonic's. For the first rehearsal with the full chorus, music director Grant Gershon divided the singers into two groups. While one group rehearsed, he asked the other to sit out in the hall and listen. Gershon called the difference when those singers came back on stage "quite extraordinary. They were much more free and open."