Yasuhisa Toyota, acoustician for Walt Disney Concert Hall, knows the sound of success. At times, like this afternoon, it is very, very quiet.
The L.A. outpost of Nagata Acoustics, where Toyota works, is a modest space — three small offices and a smattering of cubicles above a Yogurtland in a West L.A. mini-mall — and surprisingly, it is nearly devoid of sound. On this midweek visit, Toyota sits at his desk, quietly shuffling papers. An assistant’s steady keyboard pecks can be heard over the quiet hum of a printer.
Tonight, however, the sound of success will swell for Toyota. He will jet off to Helsinki to take in a concert at the Helsinki Music Centre, for which he designed the acoustics. The goal of the trip is to re-examine the orchestral layout and listen for any necessary tweaks now that the concert space with more than 1,700 seats has been open for two years. A few days later, Toyota will fly to Cremona, Italy, for the opening of a new concert hall he worked on, the smaller Giovanni Arvedi Auditorium at the new Violin Museum.
Such is life for Toyota, post-Disney Hall. In more than 30 years at Nagata Acoustics, Toyota has worked on many important concert spaces, such as Tokyo’s Suntory Hall, which he calls “epic,” and Kyoto Concert Hall, both in his native Japan. But the success of Disney Hall, which he worked on with architect Frank Gehry, has elevated the acoustician to a new level of accomplishment.
“I believe we’ve gotten many projects because of Walt Disney Hall,” says Toyota, noting that his major competitors are the firms Kirkegaard Associates, Jaffe Holden and Arup. “It’s been very busy. And a lot of travel.”
Since Disney Hall opened in 2003, Toyota has worked on more than a dozen concert spaces in the U.S. and abroad, with other architects and with Gehry. The two are working together on a hall for Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Berlin. They’re also just starting on a yet-to-be-named music complex in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, the home town of Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel.
“Our collaboration has been since 1989, and now it’s long-term,” Toyota says of Gehry. “With Frank, I learned many, many things.”
Chief among them, he says: “Flexibility.”
“His thinking is very free and without restrictions. His spirit and creative mind is [open]. And we were able to work together in this way,” Toyota says.
During the construction of Disney Hall, Toyota, who was born near Hiroshima and grew up listening to classical music, was inspired by Gehry’s design and perfected what he sees as his personal style of acoustics. Toyota calls it “surround style” or “vineyard style,” because clusters of seats appear on all sides of the stage, as opposed to the more traditional and rectangular “shoe box” layout, where the bulk of the seats face the stage head on. Since its completion, he says, no major acoustical adjustments have been made to Disney Hall.
All the halls Toyota, 60, has done since Disney, utilize this signature layout. The long list includes the New World Center Performance Hall in Miami (with Gehry); the Mariinsky Theatre Concert Hall in St. Petersburg, Russia; the new Danish Radio Concert Hall in Copenhagen; the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, Mo.; Orange County’s Soka Performing Arts Center; and Bing Concert Hall at Stanford University.
“Surround style is more intimate; we can minimize the distance between the stage and the audience,” Toyota says. “Audiences can see one another; and this layout gives us more flexibility and versatility, and it’s more interesting and attractive.”
But surround style is not without its challenges. Today, Toyota uses 3-D computer models and sophisticated software to analyze data and fine-tune an auditorium. Nearly 20 years ago, however, when Disney Hall was first being designed, those tools weren’t available.
“Disney Hall was a very complicated room shape, not simple,” Toyota says. “What we could do with a computer was very limited; it took a lot of time. I clearly remember we developed our own program; computing time for one calculation took overnight!”
Conquering those challenges has given Toyota a surge of confidence — particularly toward taking more design risks, he says. He’s working on the almost 2,200-seat Elbe Philharmonic Hall in Hamburg, Germany, with Swiss architects Herzog & De Meuron. When an unforeseen design request came up not long ago, Toyota was able to navigate it with the fluidity and innovation he says he honed working on Disney Hall.
“The architects wanted to design the walls and the ceiling in some unique way. They did use precast plaster with unique shapes instead of wood. So we developed a new material together. It’s a kind of light concrete and very decorative,” Toyota says. “If Disney Hall was not so successful, I would be more unsure about new challenges. But I have more confidence because we have it as a base.”
Meantime, Toyota, who rents an apartment with his wife in Marina del Rey, enjoys evenings at the Hollywood Bowl. When he’s not traveling — on average about half the year — he also attends concerts at Disney Hall, purely for pleasure, nearly every week, he says.
“I see the orchestra is happy and confident and that makes me happy,” he says.
He admits, though, that turning off the acute acoustician’s ear is not easy.
“I want to enjoy the music. But sometimes, I think about the acoustics. I can’t help it. It’s just always happening for me!”