Sculpting the sound

Times Staff Writer

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.

Unusual exposure

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.”

Reputation reverberates

As word leaked out over the summer about the excellence of the Disney acoustics, Toyota’s renown grew accordingly. Toyota is the leading practitioner of what is known as the vineyard style. Inspired by the Philharmonie in Berlin, where the audience sits in pavilions surrounding the orchestra, he designed the acoustics for two splendid theaters in Japan, the well-known Suntory and the newer and much-celebrated Kitara in Sapporo. Indeed, at the beginning of October, Kansas City announced that it had hired him to design the acoustics for a performing arts center that will be designed by Boston-based architect Moishe Safdie. In so doing, it dropped Russell Johnson, America’s best-known acoustician and an advocate of the adjustable model, who was the acoustician for Verizon in Philadelphia and will be responsible for the new concert hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

At one rehearsal, I ran into Ernest Fleischmann, the longtime Philharmonic general manager who shepherded Disney Hall through its many crises over 17 years, and asked him whether Johnson had been a candidate during the selection process for Disney. He replied that nothing made him prouder than having hired Toyota.

Toyota can be deceptive about just how much he knows and how much he does. Again and again, he told me that he had done nothing to Disney Hall since the first rehearsal. The most he would admit to since the end of construction was the addition of a few sound-absorbing panels high on the side walls. That came about after the first echo tests with some brass and percussion players and was meant to dampen -- ever so subtly -- sharp, fast percussive sounds. The panels went up before the orchestra played in the hall and were visible for two months. Subsequently, Gehry designed grillwork to conceal them.

Only after persistent questioning did Toyota finally admit that there is one more, slight change in the works. He will have a thin plywood panel installed behind the grille on stage right to liven up a dead spot in the far corner where the piano sits. Salonen requested a panel on the other side as well to help the trombones project over the trumpets, which sit in front of them. But in the end, that was determined to be a matter more of instrumental balance than of acoustics.

The other changes have been Salonen’s. The stage is on hydraulic lifts, and he has had it lowered 2 or 3 inches to tone down the woodwinds slightly. At one rehearsal, Salonen moved the violas to the lip of the stage, where the cellos usually sit, so that they could be more prominent. He liked the effect, and after the rehearsal I overheard him ask Borda and Toyota what they thought. Toyota said little, but Borda, though a former viola player, said she was so enamored of all the bass in the hall, she loved having the cellos on the outside and letting them rip. Salonen says he will continue to experiment.

The rehearsal schedule throughout the summer seemed somewhat haphazard. At the end of July and the beginning of August, Salonen had four rehearsals of his Hollywood Bowl programs, which meant that the orchestra paraded back and forth between the extremes of Disney’s intimate, animated natural acoustics and the huge amplified amphitheater. Later in August, after the orchestra returned from appearing at the Edinburgh Festival, it resumed its Disney-Bowl back-and-forthing on an occasional basis with Salonen and also the Philharmonic’s assistant conductor, Yasuo Shinozaki.

The most notable occasions were Shinozaki’s rehearsal of Mahler’s First and Salonen’s run-through of Beethoven’s Ninth. They were like hearing these overly familiar scores for the first time. Disney is an airy space, and the music seemed to float. At the same time, it had enormous physical impact. Instrumental colors proved indescribably beautiful.

As a concert-goer, I try to subscribe to John Cage’s motto that every seat is the best in the house -- the world is an excellent place, so be happy where you are. During these rehearsals, I became a wanderer. There were differences from place to place. The sound is louder down front. Behind the stage, the instruments you are sitting closest to stand out the most. High up, the sound takes on a spacious luminosity, and the view is spectacular. I found no favorite locations, no sweet spots.

By October, one test remained. The rehearsals had been closed to all but staff members and a few invited guests. One day, Giorgio Armani and his entourage toured the hall, but I didn’t see the designer at the rehearsal. When in town, Gehry could often be found in the audience, always asking how I thought the hall sounded. Stage director Peter Sellars and video artist Bill Viola showed up for the Beethoven Ninth.

But who knew what would happen when 2,265 sound-absorbing bodies were added? The seats are padded with material meant to mimic that absorption, yet that can only be approximate.

The Philharmonic had another three-week vacation in September, at the end of the Bowl season. It returned Oct. 8 for what would be intensive rehearsals and concerts to invited audiences leading to Thursday’s gala. Newly confident, management opened some of the working rehearsals on the orchestra’s first days back to Philharmonic staff, guests invited by Gehry’s office and construction workers.

At these first tryouts in front of nearly full houses, the sound was not appreciably different. A crowd, however, supplies a couple of thousand potentially new sound sources. When some people left early during the first open rehearsal, Salonen heard them. Stopping the rehearsal, he made a good-natured joke about how noisy people are when they think they are sneaking out of a concert. But his point was serious. The audience in Disney, he noted, could be as audible on stage as the music from the stage was in the auditorium.

On the last day of open rehearsals, I lingered to question a couple of players. After the hall was all but empty and I was about to leave, I heard an unearthly sound.

Someone was fooling around with the organ. The mechanism to operate the pipes was just being installed, and it will takes months to tune the 6,000 pipes individually. But even in their ill-tuned state, the impact was simply incredible, more tactile, more magnificent in this lively hall than any organ I had ever heard.

Elated but dazed, I ran into a Philharmonic staff member in front of the hall and blurted out that I had just heard the organ for the first time.

“You certainly look like you heard something!” she said.

Mark Swed is The Times’ music critic.