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Frank Gehry went to Berlin to celebrate his 90th birthday. The reason: Music, music, music

Frank Gehry went to Berlin to celebrate his 90th birthday. The reason: Music, music, music
Daniel Barenboim conducts Pierre Boulez's "Sur Incise" at the Pierre Boulez Saal, where a Thursday night concert marked Frank Gehry's 90th birthday. (Peter Adamik / Barenboim-Said Akademie)

When Frank Gehry turned 80, Los Angeles threw a celebration worthy of one of the region’s most illustrious residents, to say nothing of the world’s most celebrated living architect. A bash filled the Gehry-designed Geffen Contemporary at MOCA with art stars, Hollywood celebrities, politicians, cultural dignitaries and the odd captain of industry or two.

Thursday night Gehry reached a new milestone: 90. Again, there was a bash, this time in Berlin, and once more a goodly number of people showed up. Only they weren’t art stars. Most were average Berlin concertgoers who filled a modest 680-seat chamber music venue, the Pierre Boulez Saal. Ticket prices began around $17, and none was above $100.

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Daniel Barenboim, who had enticed Gehry to design the hall, wanted to present a special birthday concert, and that is the way the birthday boy wanted it as well. The occasion was meant to give thanks for the gift Gehry had given Berlin, even though the city didn’t think it wanted or needed such a gift before the hall opened two years ago. Now Berliners can’t imagine cultural life without it.

But even more important for Barenboim, the concert served to pay tribute to Gehry’s gift to music.

In remarks to the audience at the end of the program, the conductor and pianist said that at the Pierre Boulez Saal, there is “a special feeling that is different from every other hall in the world.”

Given the grand scale of many of Gehry’s projects, Barenboim’s claim for his modest hall was seemingly absurd. The $40-million facility is housed inside a nondescript building that is home to the Barenboim-Said Akademie and Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, made up of Israeli and Arab musicians. If there weren’t a sign (also modest), you wouldn’t know it is there.

In contrast, Gehry is busy physically transforming Southern California with a 50-mile Los Angeles River project that could well turn out to be one of the most expansive and imaginative public works projects of our time, along with massive developments downtown, on the Sunset Strip and in Santa Monica. He’s putting up a skyscraper in Toronto, his hometown. Everyone these days wants a piece of this nonagenarian.

Yet Gehry spent a good deal of the last decade complaining that despite Disney’s great acclaim, no one wanted a major concert hall from him, and that’s what he most wanted to build. Just last year, to his dismay, he lost a competition for a new concert hall for the London Symphony.

There is a very good reason for that. Gehry doesn’t build conventional concert halls. He builds spaces for music that stimulate and challenge musicians to go beyond convention. If you are not up to that, it is best to steer clear of Gehry. That the Los Angeles Philharmonic became the world’s most progressive orchestra in Disney Hall is no coincidence. The hall wouldn’t allow for anything less.

The story has been the same in Berlin. The second you enter this charmed circular space, with its hung oval two-row balcony floating overhead, you cannot help but sense something special. The audience Thursday night had snapped up the tickets the minute they went on sale, without any advance word of the program. That was meant to be kept secret as a surprise to Gehry, although he apparently got word that Martha Argerich would be a special guest and that Boulez’s music would be featured.

Barenboim’s son, Michael, played “Anthèmes II” for solo violin and live electronics. His father conducted “Sur Incises” for three pianos, three harps and three percussionists, featuring young players from the Akademie and Barenboim’s Staatskapelle. In between, Barenboim and Argerich performed Schumann’s Andante and Variations for two pianos, two cellos and horn. Most of the musicians were drawn from the Akademie and the West-Eastern Divan.

Because the audience was in the round, everyone could see everyone else, including Gehry. Beatific is not a word that normally is associated with the architect. Beatific is never a word associated with Barenboim, who is under attack in Berlin press reports saying a few musicians have complained that he isn’t warm and fuzzy in rehearsals.

Yet beatific they were. Beatific was the crowd, which included a number of L.A. Phil patrons and U.S. arts administrators. Beatific was Argerich, who went onstage after the concert and started fooling around with steel drums used in “Sur Incises.”

It is hard to describe exactly what happens in the Boulez Saal, but Barenboim came close in remarks by explaining that musicians and audience become one in this space. This is not so much a communication of one to the other as a shared experience. In the Boulez works, the sonorities are remarkable, and with the assistance of Yasuhisa Toyota’s acoustics, you are inside the violin in “Anthemes,” and the metallic ringing of “Sur Incises” has the intensity of a religious experience. No skyscraper, however majestic and thrilling, can do that.

The success of the Boulez Saal, which has inspired the Akademie to take great strides in programming, has not gone unnoticed. I’m told that thanks to the programming and the inexpensive tickets, some Berliners treat this as a second home and come almost nightly.

It may have taken Gehry the length of his long career, but at 90 he is finally getting his wish for more concert halls, and for nearly all of them, the Boulez Saal is the revelatory model. That will be especially true with the 1,100-seat theater for the Colburn School downtown and the L.A. Phil’s YOLA Center in Inglewood for Gustavo Dudamel’s youth orchestra project. In Paris, Gehry will get his next full-size concert hall as part of the Fondation Louis Vuitton. There is talk of a Gehry hall in London, at Wimbledon. It might be, as in Berlin, housed inside an existing structure.

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Meanwhile Gehry continues to inspire musicians. At a lunchtime tribute to the architect sponsored by the Colburn School early in February, Esa-Pekka Salonen premiered an exhilarating new chamber piece, “Fog,” dedicated to Gehry and inspired by the first time they tried out the Disney acoustics. Next week the L.A. Phil will announce the establishment of a multimillion-dollar Frank Gehry Fund for Creativity that will support collaborative projects.

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