Critic’s notebook: Nearly 10 years old, Disney Hall needs upgrades


This post has been corrected. See note below.

Already a Los Angeles landmark, Walt Disney Concert Hall turns 10 this fall. Celebrations on Grand Avenue will be populist and bold, including a Los Angeles Philharmonic gala on Sept. 30 with video projections inside Frank Gehry’s curvaceous structure and a free concert on Sept. 29 that will be simulcast on a giant video screen in Grand Park.

We can expect that singing a concert hall’s praises will provide a voluble component to the L.A. soundtrack for the next couple of months. Has anything made the city feel as progressive as this visionary venue has since, say, the opening of Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine more than half a century ago?


The 2,265-seat auditorium is acoustically one of the finest of its size in the world. Disney Hall has helped revitalize downtown, and it has inspired the L.A. Phil to become one of the most vibrant and forward-looking major arts organizations anywhere. Tourists take pleasure in merely touching the building’s shiny surfaces.

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Yet Disney Hall is not what it could be. Panicky cost-cutting measures during construction left out elements that would have made the exterior and lobby more dazzling and the hall more flexible. The Music Center, which maintains the hall, seems in danger of taking the venue for granted, not eager to invest in it when it can bask in glory by doing nothing. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is planning a subway line under the hall, raising concerns that train vibrations will spoil the sound.

Now, while Disney Hall is entering into its 10th anniversary in the limelight, is the time to begin thinking about the next 10 years and the decades beyond. Concert halls are meant to last.

When it opened in 2003, Disney was deemed a stunning instant success. The spectacular novelty of Gehry’s design and acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota’s remarkably intimate sound seemed to reinvent the modern concert hall. In fact, Disney Hall reinvents nothing.

It is a thoroughly traditional concert hall that puts primacy on tried-and-true acoustical principals, its liquid, vibrant ambience being all but inimical to the latest — and quickly outdated — multimedia bells and whistles. The genius of Disney Hall is, instead, that the modernity of its design places a listener in the frame of reference to hear all music as part of the modern experience, while the acoustics have the quality of the great concert halls of the past, where acoustical music has a visceral presence.

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It took a long time and much experimentation to get there. Gehry’s design went through many phases in a process that began in 1987 with a $50-million donation from Lillian Disney, Walt’s widow. The very need for a new home for the L.A Phil — which performed in the Music Center’s sonically dull, multipurpose Dorothy Chandler Pavilion — had to be justified over and over again, as the project stalled during the region’s economic downturn in the ‘90s and the price tag rose to a final $274 million.

Donors and critics attacked the design — especially before Gehry’s 1997 Guggenheim Museum triumphantly opened in Bilbao, Spain — complaining that the architecture was too irregularly shaped to be in harmony with the classical proportions of centuries’ old music it was meant to serve.

They were convinced only at the gala opening night, when Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted “Rite of Spring.” Stravinsky had attempted to capture the sound of the ice violently cracking with the dawn of spring in his primeval ballet score, a sound that Russians know as felt throughout their bodies. That particular sensation had never before been available in Los Angeles.

The same phenomenon occurred a year later when the organ became fully functional. Concert organ music had been going out of fashion, the instrument more associated with Sunday church services than the concert hall. But the combination of the psycho-acoustical effect of hearing rich, reedy sonorities coming from Gehry’s radically French-fry-shaped organ pipes and feeling the physical vibrations surge through your body in this acoustically alive space has helped revitalize this magnificent instrument.

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The building’s greatest contribution to modern musical culture, though, is that its ambience creates a desire to hear new sounds. That has allowed the L.A. Phil to become the leader in commissioning new work and to build an audience for new music, which is a powerful way to keep an orchestra relevant.

A more conventional road to relevance is one that exploits new media, and that is the one Gehry and Toyota provocatively ignored, preferring instead to draw the audience’s eyes and ears directly toward the musicians and music. The hall has such abundant acoustical energy that amplification can seem redundant, and it is tricky to accomplish in such a live space. The interior has the kind of architectural vitality that the addition of video screens and the like can seem an intrusion.


On the other hand, the sheer exuberance of Gehry’s design and Toyota’s sound invites rethinking musical presentation, spurring on the L.A. Phil into groundbreaking new theatrical realms where other orchestras have feared to tread.

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Salonen, who was one of the far-sighted proponents of the hall, paved the way in 2004 with the “Tristan Project,” in which the conductor collaborated with video artist Bill Viola and director Peter Sellars for a groundbreaking production of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” that has wowed audiences and even musicologists around the world.

Among current music director Gustavo Dudamel’s theatrical transformations of Disney have been the stagings of Mozart operas with noted architects, including Gehry, reimagining the hall as a stage set and with some of the hottest fashion designers creating the costumes for these site-specific events.

All of this has made Disney Hall a destination. Not only has it motivated the L.A. Phil to become the model for the modern orchestra, the hall has become our most potent symbol of Los Angeles as a genuine city of the future. It has even proved a moneymaker for the Music Center, which rents the hall out for private events and as a recording studio. Film, television and advertising businesses can’t seem to get enough of Gehry’s iconic design.

The structure has also been stimulus for the proposed Gehry-designed LA Project across Grand Avenue. When the $750-million mixed-used complex is eventually built, a concert hall will have contributed to urban downtown development, not unlike the great concert halls and opera houses have done in many capitals.


Yet despite all this building has given and has to further give to the city, too much of Gehry’s original vision was left out. The building was a bargain at $274 million, especially considering the complexity of the design and the seismic reinforcements. Miami built a performing arts center of no particular distinction in the last decade for nearly twice the cost of Disney. In St. Petersburg, the Mariinsky Theatre opened a new opera house around Disney’s size and intentionally conventional in appearance that set the Russians back $700 million.

Disney Hall is not nearly as welcoming as it should be. Gehry’s design intended projecting video of the concerts as they were being given on the exterior of the hall. He also came up with a more flattering lighting system for the steel than what the Music Center ultimately went with. The café’s design, which was taken away from Gehry to save a few pennies, is dreary. In the hall itself, Gehry included room for a never-built orchestra pit, which would have offered the L.A. Phil greater flexibility for staging opera. The knock-off Gehry elements — such as the loudspeakers sometimes trotted out on the stage and the Champagne bar in the lobby — have got to go. The garden, a wonderful outdoor space, was originally intended to include a bar for refreshments. We’re still waiting.

The costs for these upgrades haven’t been calculated, but Gehry, now as a member of the L.A. Phil board, has offered to design them for free. His guesstimate is $10 million. Architects always low-ball. Double that to be safe, and the hall is still a bargain.

Then there is the issue of the new Metro subway line going under 2nd Street. The plans had drawn scant attention until Gehry raised a red flag last spring. Music Center and Metro officials claim audiences won’t hear the trains. But vibrations are hard to predict, and far more transparency and testing is needed.

The cost of moving the line could be as high as $100 million, according to Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. That’s a lot of money to save a few decibels. But the cost of oversight and construction that would assure a silent subway (and those assurances can never be fully trusted) could also be substantial, especially if construction has to be late at night so as not to disrupt the almost constant daytime and evening use of the hall.

The fact is you can’t put a price on Walt Disney Concert Hall. It has proven itself. Were it just an outstanding concert hall in which the L.A. Phil gave splendid concerts we would have cause for cheer. Were it a failed concert hall acoustically but an architectural monument, as is the Sydney Opera House, L.A. would at least have a new tourist attraction, and that’s worth something.


But Disney is a great concert hall, an architectural monument and much more. Gleaming on Grand Avenue, it has joined the Hollywood sign in signifying L.A. But while Hollywood’s glories seldom seem fresh anymore, Disney Hall at 10 stands, more than ever, for the promise of things to come.

[For the record, 2:06 p.m. Sept. 4: An earlier version of this article said the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s gala on Sept. 30 would be simulcast on a giant video screen in Grand Park. A free community concert on Sept. 29 at Disney Hall will be broadcast live in Grand Park.]