The Site and the Sound

One thing I will not do: join the procession of prognosticators whose crystal balls have already informed them, 10 months ahead of the fact, that the music in the new Disney Hall will rank among the world‘s supreme acoustical wonders. My cynicism in this regard is hard-won; memories of the sounds of inaugural gala performances at some of the world’s most afflicted concert venues — New York‘s Avery Fisher (a.k.a. Philharmonic) Hall for starters, Vancouver’s Queen Elizabeth and San Francisco‘s Louise Davies — are not easily dispelled.

These gala openings had been preceded for months, maybe years, by claims that the acoustics in those halls would rival, if not surpass, the legendary sounds of Boston’s Symphony Hall or Vienna‘s Musikverein. It never happened. Vancouver and San Francisco have undergone improvements; the brash, bright sound of Davies these days is, in fact, a perfect mirror of Michael Tilson Thomas’ music making. Everybody knows that, even after several highly publicized remakes, however, the only salvation for Avery Fisher Hall lies in the wrecker‘s ball liberally administered. Meanwhile, the news recently emerged that the owners of Pasadena’s Ambassador Auditorium, by far the most acoustically admirable of local performing-arts structures, have given up on trying to sell the hall, and have decided to demolish it. One more irony, while we‘re at it: The Philadelphia Orchestra’s new Kimmel Center, which opened last year to uniformly disastrous reviews, came to further grief a few weeks ago when the sprinkler system suddenly came on in the middle of a rehearsal, ruining priceless instruments, including two $80,000 Steinways, and adding to a yearlong saga of unremitting woe.

These were the cautionary tales that went through my head during a recent hardhat tour of Disney — not my first, but the first in which it was finally possible to make out shapes. The hall itself — the “RalphsFood 4 Less Auditorium,” it will say in modest lettering on the door handles — is close enough to completion that you can sense the intimacy of the place as compared to the Chandler Pavilion. It‘s not only a matter of smaller size; it’s the contour of the room that seems to wrap itself around you. The seats hadn‘t been installed, and people hadn’t been installed in them, so there was no point in reporting on the acoustics, even if I wanted to. The size and shape of the hall — with no proscenium, the orchestra thrust out toward the audience, which is seated in the round — may remind you of Berlin‘s Philharmonie, another acoustically superb hall. Before you take that as any kind of promissory note, however, be aware that Boston’s Symphony Hall and New York‘s Avery Fisher — at opposite ends of the excellence scale — are also alike in shape and size.

The space in the auditorium is agreeably small; at this juncture, however, the space around that one room may be the most exciting aspect of the whole project. What Frank Gehry has accomplished here, with a fair amount of prodding from, among others, the late Lily Disney, is to create a marvelous continuity of indoors and out. Mrs. Disney insisted on the allotment of surrounding space for plantings, formal gardens and outdoor amenities. Her spirit is also honored in the way the approach to the main entrance joins the lobby itself to form a single unbroken concourse. Contemporary performing-arts architecture tends to create fortresses; the three buildings at the traditional Music Center are fortresses (even surrounded by moats), perched high above the Grand Avenue foot traffic and, thus, aloof from anything else in the city. Davies Hall is a fortress; so is Ambassador. Disney Hall isn’t; it joins with MOCA and with the new cathedral in giving people in the neighborhood — from the courthouses and the office buildings — someplace to walk to. Gehry‘s stainless steel and concrete are dandy, of course, but my favorite part of Disney Hall’s exterior is the glass — the windows at street level where pedestrians (including students from the Colburn School across Grand Avenue) can look in on practicing musicians and on audiences milling and tilting elbows at intermissions.

All this visual blandishment could do much to dispel talk about music‘s elitism — maybe even more than the Philharmonic’s own rather self-conscious inclusion of jazz and world music among the Beethoven symphonies and Esa-Pekka‘s tone rows. The greatest benefit the new hall can provide in the long run — after the first year, when every concert will probably sell out, until everybody has been there at least once — is this smooth flow between inside and outside. It builds upon the intimacy in the hall itself, which comes in large measure from the absence of a proscenium. It draws people in from the city itself, gives them a place to hang out and to feel a closeness to music that might have eluded them before. Whatever its other failures, New York’s Lincoln Center has always served that purpose handsomely (and London‘s South Bank best of all). The Music Center space has been a flop in this respect: poorly lit, with the outsize fountain and its absurd sculpture taking up space where the public could have been served with better food or — dream on! — a properly stocked book-and-music store.

Granted, Lincoln Center draws upon a continual flow of foot traffic along Broadway; its lit-up buildings around a sexy fountain form a lure for passersby to visit and even loiter. Downtown Los Angeles cannot compete in the matter of foot-traffic density, and it’s late in the game to argue that the Music Center should have been built somewhere else — Westwood, say, or Santa Monica — from the start. Plans have been broached to turn Grand Avenue into a broad promenade for the arts, extending from the cathedral to MOCA and to California Plaza. If this pie in the sky should actually land, Mrs. Disney‘s wonderful gardens and the outdoor performing spaces and the cafes and restaurants could — in your lifetime, if not necessarily in mine — become a “music center” in more than just name.