LA Philharmonic/Robertson Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, USA
The tiers and the triumph
Friday 21 November 2003
At a fraction of the cost of the Dome, Los Angeles has a sensational new building with a laudable purpose. The Walt Disney Concert Hall, new home of the LA Philharmonic, cost a mere $274m to build, despite taking 16 years to realise. The shimmering steel exterior - in parts more shiny than its Spanish sibling in Bilbao - is a fantastic sight atop Bunker Hill; its oddly formed protuberances triumphantly challenging conventionally shaped neighbours, not least the LA Phil's old home, the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion which lies exactly across the road.
A mere three weeks has passed since the hall's glitzy and glamorous multiple galas and the party feel is palpable. Frank Gehry's structure is a fantasy of form, something of an improvisation, and, within the foyers, nothing is quite what it seems. The effect is disorientating until one enters the auditorium which, despite swathes of wood, curved and draped to resemble the planks of a galleon, obeys some recognisable logic.
As the hottest ticket in town, the seats don't come cheap, but the seating capacity at 2265 is a third smaller than the Chandler Pavillion (although similar to the Barbican where prices are significantly cheaper). The Disney Hall feels small but positively so. The "vineyard" seating (influenced by the Berlin Philharmonie), where the audience is ranged in uneven tiers around the orchestra, permits a feeling of intimacy.
David Robertson, a native "Angelenos", was the conductor of this event, giving music director Esa-Pekka Salonen a brief respite - although he sat immediately in front of me, intently scrutinising the evening's procedures. The programme seemed designed to show off the acoustic properties of the hall, beginning with a largish chamber work, Milhaud's La Création du Monde, continuing with a classical concerto, Mozart's K503 in C major, and ending with Bartok's rarely performed but massively orchestrated ballet in one act, The Wooden Prince.
The sound of the opening "bluesy" saxophone of the Milhaud was amazingly immediate, with extraordinary clarity and warmth. Hydraulic risers can be raised and lowered, offering the widest possible solutions to instrument placement, but a polite interpretation of Milhaud's somewhat sleazy work was not enhanced. And the Mozart fared little better, Robertson driving the music with such exaggerated gestures that Emanuel Ax, at his best in lingering rubati, could establish little spontaneity with members of the orchestra.
Bartok's Wooden Prince displayed once again the incredible clarity of the hall's acoustic, even if surtitles were maddeningly distracting (and unnecessary). This audience found the work too long, despite the orchestra giving of its best. Bartok's astonishing colouring, with beguiling col legno, was etched on the air.
The new concert hall is a triumph. Lucky Los Angeles.
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