Take it to the next level

Times Staff Writer

“GOODBYE, Boston. Goodbye, New York,” I blurted to a couple of out-of-town colleagues.

We were ambling through a delightful garden on a pleasantly hot Southern California evening, drinking champagne. The October air was pillowy soft, and in the gentle early evening light, steel seemed to turn to satin. It was the opening night of Walt Disney Concert Hall. Music flowed through architecture, causing adrenaline to flow through my veins, and I did not doubt at that feverish moment that this was the best concert hall in the world, let alone the United States, where Symphony Hall in Boston and Carnegie Hall had reigned supreme for a century.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. June 23, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 23, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Disney Hall -- A June 13 Calendar article about the Ron Burkle Ralphs/Food-4-Less Foundation Auditorium at Disney Hall mistakenly placed an apostrophe in Ralphs.

My more prudent colleagues were star-struck as well, but not ready to concede to a diminishing of Boston’s acoustical truth or be unfaithful to lifelong love affairs with Carnegie (one I share). Tourists, they were suspicious of L.A.’s confusion between illusion and reality. Most of all, they knew the dangers of concert hall love at first sight.

My remark was casual, intentionally provocative. But nearly a hundred Disney concerts later -- great ones and not-so-great ones -- my excitement has not waned. What works in Disney works incomparably well. A Schubert symphony played with an energetic rush by the Berlin Philharmonic makes centuries seem to drop away from the score; the radiant brass in the Berlioz Requiem, perfectly positioned in the rafters, raises that nice scalloped roof.


That does not mean everything works. On bad or indifferent nights, Disney can add to the letdown. There is no place for performers to hide -- poor intonation is in your face. A lack of creativity in the programming -- say, the appearance of such an adventurous conductor as Marin Alsop or Robert Spano sticking to convention -- feels almost like an affront to the space. I actually think I would have enjoyed Christoph von Dohnanyi’s substantial but unimaginative Schumann more in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where bland could accompany bland.

After a season, in short, it is obvious that being a great hall doesn’t mean Disney is all that it could be. There are annoyances. Some would be easy to fix; some not. Some are trivial and shouldn’t matter. But even something petty can set you off. A surly waiter can ruin a dinner, and a ruined dinner before a concert can mess up a whole evening.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic will end its first season in Disney this afternoon in what is likely to be a blaze of glory, with the deeply moving grandeur of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s new “Wing on Wing” and Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” But we can’t let bedazzlement allow us to discount the hall’s defects.

Cramping one’s style

The complaint one hears most often concerns the lack of legroom in certain seats. All it takes is a cramp in your calf to close your ears and sour your reaction to a soaring space. The unique shape of the Disney interior and the need to balance intimacy with income forced compromises. There are more seats in the hall than would be ideal, and some are tight, though not as tight as those in many old European concert halls -- try sitting in the “gods” in London’s Royal Opera House sometime.

Perhaps the easiest solution to this problem would be to identify the 400 or so problem seats in Disney and warn tall people. Knock a few bucks off the ticket price and, rather than complain, people might feel they were getting a bargain.

The second most frequent complaint involves amplification. There was never enough thought given to this aspect of musical presentation during the planning of the hall. But had the planners known what a problem it would turn out to be to amplify Disney Hall, I fear acoustical compromises might have been made.


Everything that makes Disney great also makes it a multimedia nightmare. The liveliness of natural instrumental sound, the sheer immediacy, means that you cannot push the space acoustically. Play loud rock music and the place goes crazy, with listeners’ threshold of pain quickly reached. Even modest amplification is exceedingly tricky, and trying to get a consistent sound directed 360 degrees to an audience that surrounds the stage significantly complicates matters.

At the moment, an ugly black honeycomb speaker arrangement can be lowered from the ceiling. It isn’t too distorting. But ugly is not an option in this breathtaking auditorium. Nor do the speakers do a very good job of dispersing the sound, thus spoiling the sonic dimensionality that is one of Disney’s hallmarks. Lately, loudspeakers have been put on the stage to amplify the spoken word. They’re OK, though on the echoey side.

These are Band-Aid solutions, however. What is really necessary is very good gear operated by very good ears. Equipment changes all the time, and the Music Center needs to set up a special permanent fund so that it can keep throwing money at this problem.

But everyone must also realize that Disney is, for all its groundbreaking design brilliance, a traditional concert hall. It will never be a wonderful space for multimedia. Blocking the organ and the rear window with video screens is such a visual turnoff that the hall’s ambience is seriously diminished. Nothing projected on a screen can compete with the overwhelming visceral sensation of sight and sound that the unadorned Disney produces. Even a small screen for projecting text during vocal works is unacceptable.

My experience on opening night, when everything thrilled -- the sights, the sounds, the sense of occasion, the pleasure of company -- was a study in psycho-acoustics. Quantitatively, I cannot tell to what degree the atmosphere opened my ears that night, but it definitely played its part. And that is why I think the single most important thing the Music Center could do to immediately improve Disney is dump the Patina Group, which runs the catering operation.

A great concert hall needs agreeable places in which to congregate. But night after night, I feel doubly let down at Disney. Where to go before the concert? Where to go afterward?


The small cafeteria, inelegantly stuck in a corner, was an afterthought. The powers that be, even while realizing they had a downtown-revitalizing architectural masterpiece on their hands, were too cheap to hire the hall’s architect, Frank Gehry, to design a small cafe and instead farmed out the project. Meanwhile, Patina exhibits interest in one thing: profit. The limited menu of highly varying quality stands out mainly for its overpricing.

I’m one of the cafeteria’s best customers, having eaten there several times a week during concert season simply because there are no better options. But a small, uninspired $6.95 cucumber (!) sandwich makes high tea at a fancy-schmancy Beverly Hills hotel seem a bargain. I recently discovered that the fruit was fresher, the food better overall and the prices more reasonable at the Barbican Centre -- this in epicureally challenged, sky-high-expensive London.

The post-concert options here are worse. Don’t even think about getting a drink at Patina. The costly Disney restaurant has received very good reviews, but it’s not exactly welcoming in what was supposed to be the living room of the city. No matter that wine begins around $18 a glass, you will be hustled out of the tiny bar before you know it.

The best-kept secret is the bar in REDCAT, the black-box theater at Disney Hall’s southwest corner. It is closed on the theater’s dark nights, but CalArts, which runs it, promises that next season it will be open every night and offer food as well.

Here is my suggestion: Open the fanciful Founders Room in Disney Hall to the public after concerts. It is one of Gehry’s most alluring spaces, yet few concertgoers have ever even seen it. Let the high rollers keep exclusive use of it before concerts and during intermissions. But what a great bar it would make where we could all congregate after a concert. People want to linger in the hall, and if we want to build a real arts community, they should be encouraged to do so.

One last gripe: The hero of Disney Hall is Ernest Fleischmann; we have him to thank for nearly every aspect of this momentous building, from initiating the project to doggedly keeping it alive when nearly everyone else had given up. It is not enough to have named some minor corner of the hall after him, for his name to be lost in a sea of donor and corporate monikers.


By being called the Ron Burkle Ralph’s/Food-4-Less Foundation Auditorium, the main hall has become the brunt of international jokes. Let the plaques read: “Ernest Fleischmann Auditorium as sponsored by the Ralph’s/Food-4-Less Foundation.” Fleischmann deserves it. Disney deserves it.

Mark Swed can be contacted at