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Disney Hall’s (Almost) Unfinished Symphony

Gail Eichenthal is a longtime host and producer of Los Angeles Philharmonic broadcasts on National Public Radio. An anchor and reporter for KNX-AM, she last wrote for the magazine about the death of KNX colleague Steve Smith.

May 15, 1987. We’re a little more than halfway through the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s 25-day, 18-concert, eight-country tour of Europe with then-music director Andre Previn. I’m filing daily “Letters from Europe” for my radio station back home, KUSC-FM.

As orchestra tour days go, it could hardly be more exhausting nor, ultimately, more embarrassing. We leave Monte Carlo at 8 a.m., boarding buses for the Nice Airport, where we hop a jet to Brussels. Then it’s another bus ride to the Festival of Flanders in Ghent, normally 30 minutes away. But a pileup on the major highway for this Belgian waffle-sized country stretches the trip to two hours. The musicians arrive an hour late, forcing cancellation of the first work on the program, John Harbison’s First Symphony, a local premiere.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Sep. 05, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday September 05, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Downtown church -- An article in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times Magazine about the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s long wait for a new home incorrectly stated that Philharmonic Auditorium at the northeast corner of 5th and Olive streets was a Methodist church. The building was the home of Temple Baptist Church.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 21, 2003 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 4 Lat Magazine Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
The article “Disney Hall’s (Almost) Unfinished Symphony” (Aug. 31) incorrectly stated that Philharmonic Auditorium at the northeast corner of 5th and Olive streets was a Methodist church. The building was the home of Temple Baptist Church.

Thirteen hours of travel, then an hour late to their own concert. But here was the amazing part: The musicians were in fine spirits throughout the long afternoon. At one point on the road to Ghent, we passed a town with the memorable name of Aase. As I turned my head to look, David Weiss, principal oboe, leaned over and said, “Gail, that’s Aase backwards.” This led to a straight hour of bad Aase puns and shrieks of laughter.

The reason for all this good cheer? That morning the orchestra’s general manager, Robert Harth, announced out of the clear blue Mediterranean sky that Lillian Disney, widow of Walt, was donating $50 million for a new concert hall. It will be the first real home for the orchestra, and is scheduled to be completed in the fall of 1992.

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“When the announcement was made there was a spontaneous cheer from the whole orchestra,” recalls Kazue Asawa McGregor, the orchestra’s longtime librarian. “It was like a party.” That party spirit carried us through that endless day of travel, not a bad metaphor for the epic wait on which we were about to embark, the wait for the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

It’s true the Los Angeles Philharmonic has not exactly been homeless since its founding in 1919 by William Andrews Clark Jr., heir to an Arizona copper fortune, a senator’s son, bibliophile, amateur violinist and, most pertinently, multimillionaire. But the Philharmonic has never resided in a building designed specifically for orchestral performance.

Thanks to Clark, who spent at least $3 million on his extravagant musical hobby, the Philharmonic Orchestra of Los Angeles gave its first performance to a capacity audience of 2,400 at Trinity Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles on Oct. 24, 1919. The conductor was Walter Henry Rothwell, whom Clark had lured from the St. Paul Symphony Orchestra. The following season, the orchestra moved to Philharmonic Auditorium at Pershing Square, actually a Methodist Church on the northeast corner of 5th and Olive. This was “home” for the next 44 years.

“It didn’t sound bad,” says Philharmonic principal bassoon David Breidenthal, who this fall begins his 42nd season with the orchestra. “But there was one men’s bathroom, one women’s bathroom. No place to even store your instrument.”

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“The facilities were terrible,” says Irving Geller, a principal violinist with the orchestra for 48 years until his retirement in 1999. “If we ever had a break, we hung out in the basement or walked around outside.”

Like many players of the era, he remembers with fondness concerts led by the Dutch conductor Eduard van Beinum, beloved music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1956 to 1959. “The sound he got out of the orchestra even in Philharmonic Auditorium was unbelievable,” Geller says. “The musicians played their hearts out for him.”

Van Beinum died on the podium at 58 while leading a performance by his other orchestra, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw.

The Philharmonic embarked on its first international tour in 1956, under the auspices of the U.S. State Department, and accommodations were none too homey. In the demilitarized zone on the border between North and South Korea, they played for U.S. troops and slept in Army barracks the musicians affectionately called Fort Wallenstein, a tribute to tour conductor Alfred Wallenstein, the orchestra’s music director from 1943 to 1956. Geller remembers that on one of the propeller planes the musicians sat unsecured along the walls of the aircraft.

“But thinking back, it was great,” he says. For a musician who earned $100 a week and played only 24 weeks a year, it was a way to see the world. In those days, the musicians couldn’t live solely on their orchestra wages, so many freelanced or earned money working nonmusical jobs.

By the time the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion opened in 1964, the dazzling Bombay-born Zubin Mehta’s third season as music director, the players were making comfortable incomes and performing year-round. Still, they had no home of their own.

The glamorous, anything but chandelier-challenged Dorothy Chandler Pavilion was intended as a multipurpose hall, housing not only the Philharmonic, but opera, dance and musical theater. By virtue of its design that boasted a gargantuan backstage and ample wing and fly space, and with the blessing of its namesake, the gifted fund-raiser and philanthropist known as Buffy, the hall was used for such affairs as the Academy Awards.

“It was such an impressive building,” says Breidenthal. “I had never played anywhere like that. But the acoustics--as time went by, as I went out to listen in the hall, it sounded like listening to a good orchestra on the radio. You couldn’t tell the personalities of the players whatsoever.

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“All these years I’ve sat next to one of the great clarinetists of the world, Michele Zukovsky. And the fine clarinetist Lorin Levee. And they sounded absolutely unbelievable sitting next to me. [Then] I’d go out and listen and it could be almost anybody. It was a shame. I knew the same thing was happening to me. And I wasn’t very happy about it. Forty years of being ‘any’ bassoon player.”

Violinist Tamara Chernyak, hired by Mehta in 1976, loved the luxury and comfort of the Chandler Pavilion. “But it didn’t produce a rich sound,” she says. “On tour I saw these nice new concert halls in Birmingham, England, in Houston. I would think: We are a major city; why not us?”

Principal trombone Ralph Sauer, who’s been a member of the Philharmonic for nearly 30 years, says, “The bass frequency is very deficient in the pavilion . . . . A hall that’s lacking in bass response doesn’t just stint the bass drum and string bass section. It makes all the instruments, even in the upper registers, sound less rich.”

I was shocked the first time I heard the Los Angeles Philharmonic on tour. It was in May of 1982 at Tokyo’s Bunka Kaikan, a wood-filled dream of a hall. The orchestra’s then-music director Carlo Maria Giulini conducted the Seventh Symphony of Bruckner to close the program.

Here’s what I wrote about the concert for one of my KUSC “Letters from Japan” broadcasts: “Though it seats just over 2,000, there’s a wonderful feeling of intimacy combined with spaciousness in the Bunka Kaikan. From where I sat in the middle of the orchestra section, there was a depth to the lower strings I had never heard before, a transparency to the sound that was breathtaking. I felt as if I was listening to the piece (and to the orchestra) for the very first time.”

It bodes well for the Philharmonic’s future at the Disney Hall that it was designed by Nagata Acoustics, the same firm that produced that miraculous sonic effect in the Bunka Kaikan, and also at Tokyo’s newer and even more acclaimed Suntory Hall.

L.A. Philharmonic general manager Gail Samuel concurs. “When you hear [this orchestra] at the Bunka Kaikan or Berlin Philharmonie hall or the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, a whole new world of sound opens up, one you don’t hear in their home city. The louds are louder. The softs are softer. The beautiful sound it can produce.”

But as any inveterate Disney Hall watcher can attest, the Philharmonic came very close to staying put in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

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I will admit it. During the terrible Disney Hall doldrums of the mid-1990s, there was a period when I lost hope. So did the architect.

Lillian Disney had stipulated that the groundbreaking take place by 1992. By then, the designated architect, Frank O. Gehry, had become a world-famous Pritzker Prize winner. His undulating design for Disney Hall had been touted in architectural journals and in museum exhibits, notably in a well-attended show at MOCA here in Los Angeles.

The groundbreaking duly took place, but it was largely symbolic, and those of us close to the project knew it. Spiraling costs, flaccid fund-raising, a controversial planned hotel and a county decree that 95% of the budget had to be in pocket before construction began all contributed to a Grand Pause that lasted until 1997. On Dec. 19 of that year, Lillian Disney died at 98 following complications from a stroke.

During the worst of the torpor, I conducted a long interview with Gehry. As always, he was swamped with ambitious commissions, including the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain. He had all but concluded that the dream home he had designed for his beloved orchestra would never be built. When Bilbao, which slightly resembles the Disney Hall design, opened in 1997 and was dubbed the greatest building of the last 100 years, Disney Hall watchers became even more demoralized. Gehry’s design for Disney Hall had come first.

“If you trace the history of the building,” Gehry said earlier this year, “you will realize what a miracle it is that it got built . . . all those different interests, feelings, people . . . misguided, well-intentioned. It’s a real opera. We should get John Adams or somebody to write an opera about Disney Hall.”

A turning point came after some Philharmonic board members watched the orchestra and music director Esa-Pekka Salonen conquer Paris in the fall of 1996 with a month of performances of various works, most notably, Stravinsky’s opera “The Rake’s Progress.” Rave notices in The Times, in music journals and European papers floated back to breakfast tables in the Hancock Park homes of philanthropic Los Angeles. The reviews spoke of the orchestra’s mastery of a wide range of repertoire, its flexibility, and the beauty and power of its sound.

Then there was the Bilbao factor. The orchestra’s former executive director, Ernest Fleischmann, believes the universal acclaim accorded Gehry’s masterpiece at its inauguration lit a fire under such powerfully influential Angelenos as developer/philanthropist Eli Broad, former Music Center board chair Andrea Van de Kamp, then-L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan, and Diane Disney Miller, Walt and Lillian’s daughter. They spearheaded a fresh fund-raising drive. “It was dead, ready to be buried and we said we can’t let that happen,” Broad recalls. “We knew we had to do this for our city. We knew Disney Hall would become a symbol, the way the Opera House is a symbol of Sydney, Australia, and the Eiffel Tower symbolizes Paris.”

Earlier this summer, following the first series of rehearsals in Disney Hall, I asked David Howard, the clarinetist, about his thoughts. “I never had any faith the hall would be completed,” he says. “There were too many rocky turns. Even after playing four rehearsals in the hall, I’m still not sure it’s there.”

Fall 2002. I’m walking into the three-fourths complete Disney Hall auditorium for the first time with a small group of orchestra players and staff. Most were with me on that bus to the Nice Airport in 1987. We’re oohing, aahing and fighting back tears. The curved wood ceiling, the skylights, the intimacy, the closeness of the stage to the audience all astonish us.

“It feels like a religious experience,” McGregor, the librarian, says. “It feels sacred. Just walking in here, even without the music. It feels like Frank designed this for us.”

Gehry has imbued Disney Hall not only with his passionate love of music--he told me those sensuous exterior curves remind him of the arc of a conductor’s baton--but as a lover of this orchestra in particular. He tailored the hall to the orchestra’s needs with members advising on rehearsal rooms, lounge areas and instrument storage. Salonen, who became a good friend of Gehry through this odyssey, had a great deal to say about the look and sound. Even Mehta and former principal guest conductor Simon Rattle weighed in. And Gehry was in constant touch with master acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota, whose requirements were respected in every inch of the $274-million, 293,000-square-foot facility.

Samuel, the general manager, believes Disney Hall will reflect more distinctly the richness of sound, the variety of timbre, the unique solo voices that compose the Philharmonic’s musical palette. “I equate it to getting a new instrument,” says the former violinist. “Stringed instruments in particular are so individual and the sounds they produce can be so varied. You can have a great player, but an inferior instrument can limit them. But if suddenly that person acquires a better instrument, a whole different range of colors is possible. That’s the same with an orchestra and a concert hall.”

“What’s amazing is this city has not really heard this orchestra, not the way we sound in really great halls, in Paris, in [New York’s] Carnegie, in Berlin,” violist John Hayhurst says during the tour. “I think it’s going to be a new time for the whole city.”

July 22, 2003. I am having lunch with Philharmonic violinist Roy Tanabe in North Hollywood a few weeks after the orchestra’s first rehearsal in Disney Hall. It is Tanabe’s contention that the timing of the hall’s completion is perfect, delays and all. “It’s like a reward for accomplishment,” he says. “And it’s abundantly deserved at this point. The city deserves the hall with us in it.”

Tanabe recalls the thrill of hearing the announcement of the gift on that bus in 1987. “But that doesn’t hold a candle to how it feels right now. Because everything has changed. We’ve changed. The city has changed. We had no idea Frank Gehry was going to design this building for us--the importance not only to our city but to the whole world architecturally. That we would be the reason for it.”

Tanabe says the orchestra has finally arrived in it first real home, and in its profession. “There is tangible proof, of course: We had great success in Salzburg [a monthlong concert series in 1992] . . . [and at] the residency in Paris. All of that is validating. But the proof to me is how we played [Ravel’s] ‘Daphnis and Chloe’ this morning at rehearsal.”

So how does it feel to play in Disney Hall after all these years?

“I know how it feels to sit in the second fiddle section and play [Stravinsky’s ballet] ‘Petrushka’ in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion,” Tanabe replies. “I’m very concerned with the fives [the complicated meters] and the pianissimos and being rhythmically correct. And I listen to how gorgeously the trumpet solo is played, or the flute, and I have to be sure to line up my pizzicatos with the harp. I’m thinking about all those things.

“Then on June 30 we rehearsed ‘Petrushka’ onstage at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Of course I thought about all these things I normally do. I’m programmed to do that. But when Esa-Pekka asked us to play the Fourth Tableau, ‘Shrovetide Fair,’ something quite magical happened to me. Goosebumps came up on my skin. I saw the coachman, I felt wooden carts rumbling under me, and I started laughing. I felt like I was in the middle of a circus. I thought I [had been]plopped down in the middle of the Cirque du Soleil. As soon as the rehearsal was over, someone asked me why I was laughing. I told him I was at Shrovetide Fair. That’s the difference to me.”


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