Walt Disney Concert Hall needs to stand tall

Times Music Critic

Chapter 11 in Neal Gabler’s 2006 biography of Walt Disney is titled “Slouching Toward Utopia.” It begins a couple of years after Disneyland opened in July 1955. So what did Walt do next? “Aglow over Disneyland,” Gabler writes, “he was intent on expanding and improving it.”

Disney called the “city on the hill” his “baby,” “a living and breathing thing” that would never be finished. He wanted a 150-foot Matterhorn, a monorail and submarines. He got out his checkbook. All this, Walt said, “gave him endless pleasure.”

Last Sunday afternoon, the Los Angeles Philharmonic completed its fifth season in the concert hall on the hill that Walt’s money, if not Walt himself, built and that, in its own way, is slouching toward utopia. During intermission, audience members strolled in dappled sunlight in the garden. Inside, they cheered Esa-Pekka Salonen’s new Piano Concerto with unbridled enthusiasm.


Not everyone was happy about everything. One conspiracy-minded patron assured me that the drinking fountains on the second level weren’t working because of a plot by the Patina Group, which runs the concessions in the hall. But even he agreed that a glorious concert in a glorious hall on a glorious day was worth the bother of $3 bottled water.

Simply astonishing

In the five years that the Philharmonic has been playing in Walt Disney Concert Hall, it has become a better and bolder orchestra. The building itself, according to the Convention and Visitors Bureau, has replaced the Hollywood sign as the symbol of Los Angeles.

No festivals occurred last month in Disney, just business as usual. But business as usual meant one astonishing concert by the Philharmonic, or under its auspices, after another. Salonen’s programs moved from large late-Romantic works by Brahms, Wagner and Mahler through the 20th century of Hindemith, Stravinsky, Debussy, Dutilleux and Bartók to today, with his own concerto. (A new cello concerto by the British composer Oliver Knussen would have been included but was not finished.) The performances had the rich glow of golden-age music-making.

The Philharmonic commissioned a new work from Canadian composer Derek Charke for the Kronos Quartet and the startlingly sensual Inuit singer Tanya Tagaq. The orchestra updated its Baroque series with Couperin heard through the ears of the stellar young British composer Thomas Adès, and it also commissioned a major new work for the Green Umbrella series from Adès and a video artist, Tal Rosner.

The final recital in the organ series was turned over to the father of all Minimalists, Terry Riley, who bathed the organ, which he named Hurricane Mama, in psychedelic lights and communed with the cosmos, reaching a climax that may still have some molecules wiggling in the far corners of the hall. But the mystical way had been paved a few days earlier by pianist Peter Serkin, who, as a late replacement for the ailing Pierre-Laurent Aimard, began the process of bending space and time with two intense pieces by Messiaen, every note played as if it were a funnel to God.


In Frank Gehry’s architectural embrace of the future and in his reverence for traditional, illuminating acoustics, Disney made all this not only possible but also popular. Throughout May, the hall was full. Some people were turned away. The Philharmonic’s daring did trouble several organ subscribers, who were quick with their e-mails; maybe Riley better belonged among the new music events. On the other hand, I heard from anti-Minimalist audience members who unwittingly found their socks knocked off. And there were at least a few spectators who subscribed to the organ series simply to get good seats for Riley and then discovered the pleasures of Bach and Messiaen.

This is the real secret of the Disney and the Philharmonic magic. In some ways, the building may be the most modest, least innovative of all major modern concert venues. Its main job, once you’re seduced inside, is to create a direct link between sound and its reception. The orchestra can hear itself. The audience has an immediate tactile connection with music that can be found only in the finest 19th century halls. The modernity of the setting, though, reminds us of the here and now, which makes new music feel right.

And it is the depth of the Philharmonic’s sense of tradition that has made it the most relevant orchestra in America, and probably anywhere. At Sunday’s concert, Salonen bid farewell to three retiring veteran players -- bassoonist David Breidenthal, violist Arthur Royal and horn player Robert Watt -- noting that collectively they represented 124 years of service. Salonen said he had also calculated that he had played close to a thousand concerts with them. Their contribution, he declared, is now part of the Philharmonic DNA.

From this foundation, the Philharmonic continues to build. A new viola player, Carrie Dennis, who will join the orchestra at the end of the summer, was on hand Sunday to play a big solo in the first movement of Salonen’s concerto, a duet between her and pianist Yefim Bronfman, and she was riveting. Surely I don’t need to tell you about Gustavo Dudamel, who will succeed Salonen next year after the conductor finishes his final, and 17th, season as music director.

Cheap overseers

The Philharmonic worthily expands, changes, evolves, its work never finished. But while the Music Center is aglow over Disney Hall, it shows no pleasure writing checks. Anything the center can do on the cheap, it does. Disney is not well cared for. Wood on the curved walls of the BP Hall, where the packed pre-concert talks are given, is warping. Walking around the exterior Sunday, I noticed pigeons nesting in the crevices. The steel looked as though it hadn’t been cleaned in places for a long time. The garden, originally -- dare I say it? -- a symphony of color, with exciting, exotic blooms each season, is now bland.

To save a few million, the Music Center scrimped on the cafe, which is dark, overcrowded and the least inviting space in the building. But the biggest oversight was lighting the exterior of this ravishing structure at night.

Gehry specifically chose a steel able to sustain images projected on it. He did not include a marquee. He felt the most exciting way to announce what is happening in the hall would be to project video of the concert on the outside walls, turning the building into a living billboard.

Given that Salonen and Dudamel are the two most photogenic of today’s great conductors, this could be an amazing way to make Disney the center of street life, especially once the Grand Avenue development across the street -- with its hotel, apartments, shops and restaurants -- is built.

Right now, Disney is harshly lighted in a way that Gehry hates, and so do I. During daylight saving time, I find myself tempted to hike up the hill from The Times to concerts simply to enjoy the sight of the hall reflecting the sunset. In the winter, I prefer to drive because the lighting is so annoying.

The Music Center has gotten an enormous payback from Disney and now is coasting on the hall’s fame. With the fifth anniversary coming up in September, this is the time for the center to listen to Uncle Walt and stop slouching toward utopia. Stand up straight, treat the baby right, sign the bloody checks. Disney’s capacity to provide endless pleasure is well proven. But a living, breathing city needs a living, breathing symbol.