Three times Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” has made history. The first was when its Paris premiere caused a riot 90 years ago. The second came with its inclusion 63 years ago in “Fantasia,” the animated film in which great orchestral music and wider popular culture met and found they liked each other.
The third time was Thursday night. Brilliantly played by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the end of the gala opening concert of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Stravinsky’s revolutionary ballet score answered the one question skeptics keep asking about Frank Gehry’s revolutionary new building: Can it possibly live up to expectations?
If those expectations are that a concert hall can improve the world, who knows? Maybe. But if those expectations are better ones -- that a spectacular venue with vivid acoustics can make the experience of music so immediate that sound seems to enter a listener’s body not through just the ears but through the eyes, through every pore in the skin -- then, yes, Disney Hall is everything and more than we might have hoped for. In this enchanted space, music can take on meaningful new excitement even in an age when many art forms are satisfied with oversaturated stimulation.
“Sonic L.A.,” the first of three nights of different galas, was meant as an exploratory introduction to the Disney sound, created by the Japanese acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota. The idea was to build gradually from solo voice to varied small ensembles, with the climax the massive full orchestra sonorities of the “Rite.”
To begin with, there was an orchestra-free stage, a darkened hall and a single spotlight on the jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves, who sang, without fuss, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Standing high above the still dark stage, Philharmonic principal concertmaster Martin Chalifour played the Prelude from Bach’s Third Partita for Solo Violin. Again there was no fuss, although from a central seat at the rear of the hall, the sound lacked presence.
The real magic began with Charles Ives’ “The Unanswered Question,” which answered another question, about the spatial aspect of this hall. With a rich, incandescent blue light bathing the top of the hall and the mysterious sound of unseen violins hidden in the back corners, a musical glow and the visual one entered a dialogue. Questing trumpets on high, querulous flutes in the back, and the effect was of a house stirring to life.
Not all worked. Pairs of trumpets and trombones in the terraces on either side of the auditorium echoing back and forth a Canzon by Giovanni Gabrieli made Disney sound overly cavernous. There was a harshness to the Los Angeles Master Chorale, standing in the aisles and conducted by Grant Gershon, in Gyorgy Ligeti’s otherworldly harmonics in his “Lux Aeterna.”
But Mozart’s Symphony No. 32 -- actually an eight-minute overture -- played by a small orchestra pulsated with effervescent energy.
Each of these pieces was less than 10 minutes, and none, other than the national anthem, was gala music. The Los Angeles Philharmonic is ready to show the world that it is a different, modern orchestra for a different, modern hall.
But in Thursday’s concert, Disney showed the Philharmonic a thing or two about this hall’s personality.
With the audience wrapping around the stage, a listener experiences other listeners as well as the musicians. “Lux Aeterna” irritated many, and shuffling, coughing and the nervous jangling of jewelry were its accompaniment.
Mystification also took its toll. Every opening has its snafus. The Philharmonic has done a remarkable job of preparing itself to play in this new hall, and it treated its opening admirably as a concert, not a speech-fest. The ushers didn’t have enough programs, however, and many audience members had no idea what was being played or why.
Yet with the “Rite,” everything was righted to such a degree that I have never sat through a performance of it which so riveted companions. The clarity of solo instruments, from the solo bassoon in its sour-sweet high range at the start to the wondrous thunder of timpani that vibrated the seats, offered one revelatory thrill after another.
The piece is a Salonen and Philharmonic specialty, and the point here was that anyone who had ever heard them play it in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion had never really heard it.
The time for sober examinations of this amazing concert hall, of how the orchestra ultimately adapts to it, of what happens over the next couple of years -- as the concrete fully dries, the wood ages and the steel settles -- will come. But sobriety is not yet possible. The first drafts of Disney Hall’s sound were simply too intoxicating.