LA Observed file photo
The goal for Walt Disney Concert Hall was to shake the dust off classical music and architecture and engage the contemporary world and popular culture, according to architect Frank Gehry and L. A. Philharmonic conductor laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen. The two men spoke recently at the Hammer Museum in a conversation moderated by architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, who said the hall was "one of the most positive stories" he has covered. The conversation, on stage at the Hammer's Billy Wilder Theater, was part of the commemoration of Disney Hall's tenth anniversary.
"We did care about the legacy of classical music," Salonen said.. "What we wanted was something like a museum with a dynamic contemporary wing." If someone didn't update the tradition, he was afraid classical music would "come to an end like classic cars. What makes the L.A. Phil unique is that it doesn't impose an old model. The new hall changed the narrative so that the orchestra and the hall became one. That never happened at [the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion]. Disney Hall is a fine-tuned instrument for one purpose - high-quality orchestral playing from whatever century."
Gehry said he felt that the old buildings downtown reflected L.A.'s "insecurity" because they were modeled after structures in other cities such as Lincoln Center in New York City. He wanted to break that mold. "That was so strange for L.A. where everything is freer. With Disney Hall I was trying to break down the scale into smaller pieces. There was nothing in the neighborhood to emulate."
Both Gehry and Salonen gave credit to the late Ernest Fleischmann, who was executive director of the L.A. Philharmonic, for his vision for the hall. "He wanted it to be an infinitely democratic room where everybody would be equal," Gehry said. "There would be no bad seats. We wanted intimacy despite the volume, with the orchestra in the same space as the audience," rather than separated by a proscenium.
"The audience is no longer an anonymous mass," Salonen said. "It feels like we're playing to individuals and we can perceive that they feel something. There's a feedback loop because we're in close proximity. It changed the way the musicians approach things like what kind of socks to wear." The orchestra plays better in Disney Hall, he said, because the audience knows the music is for them and not "some kind of generalized activity. You feel the intimacy and that affects the way we perform. In no other hall have I experienced this. Music should be an overwhelming emotional and physical experience."
Gehry developed one model for the hall with white plaster interior walls that "looked kind of like sails." That would have been fine acoustically, he said, "but we wanted the warmth of wood, to make you "feel closer to the violin and the cello.
He described the day when a musician came in to play as a test while the hall was still under construction. "We sat up in the highest seat," and when the music began, "I was holding Esa-Pekka's hand. From the first second, it was just plain beautiful. We knew then it was going to be a success."
Months later, when the orchestra first rehearsed in the new hall, there were "many tears." One older musician said, "I've wasted four decades of my life and now it sounds like this." On that day, Salonen said to Gehry, "Frank, we'll keep it."