Progress Report: Gehry in Bloom 


This time, they let us in the front door. The escalators aren’t yet working, nor the public johns; the tour guides on this mid-May afternoon still insist on hardhats and goggles as the apparel of choice. The chaos, however, has measurably receded. Outside, on the corner of First and Grand, some kind of roadway biz is under way and the landscape is all mud and rocks. Inside, however, the Walt Disney Concert Hall has achieved a discernible shape. As the ads have said, “You could almost hear it.”

The pillars and girders, leaning every which way in accordance with Frank Gehry’s epochal designs, are handsomely sheathed in glistening Douglas fir. The lobby floors are decked out in floral carpeting that may make you want to leave your shoes outside. “Mrs. Disney loved flowers” is our tour guide’s litany for the afternoon. The “Grand Hall,” the place for pre-concert lectures and such, is indeed grand — if, on first sight, somewhat dizzying: the convexities of Gehry’s stainless-steel designs turned inside out and reproduced in burnished wood.

Just outside, Mrs. Disney’s real garden crowns the rooftop of the part of the Disney enclave that nobody mentions, the industrial-park complex of solid, stolid masonry that clings to two sides of the Gehry fantasy and renders them non-photogenic, the home — any day now, in fact — of the Philharmonic’s executive offices. Up on top, however, all is magical: the trees chosen so that something will be in bloom 12 months of the year, set among flowers flowers flowers; a darling small amphitheater space for kids’ entertainment; a place for picnics and just for hanging out. Lillian Disney wanted all of this, and she’s getting it — too late, alas, to earn her famous smile. Her fountain will be there, too. “Walt and Lillian loved blue-and-white china,” our guide explains. “They collected the real stuff from Holland, but they were just as passionate about fake-Delft tchotchkes from Woolworth’s. And so there’ll be a blue-and-white paving around the fountain.”

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Solemnly and hopefully, we file into the concert hall itself. The seats, except for a couple of rows, are in place, done up — “alas,” did someone say? — in the same assertive color scheme as on the carpeting outside. Another Gehry fantasy, the wild jumble of the fake organ pipes that will front the real ones, draws a gasp or two. Best of all is the sense — even in this not-quite-ready-for-closeup state — of being in the same room with the onstage performers, no fourth wall, no intimidating proscenium. This time, however, there are no performers; onstage are Esa-Pekka Salonen, his boss Deborah Borda, Frank Gehry, legendary acoustics guru Yasuhisa Toyota — all abeam like the brightest of his stainless steel panels. Polite and whimsical chitchat is the order of the day, mostly centering around Gehry’s account of how many times he had dropped into the project, been dropped out of it, obliged to change his mind, his plans. Fresh from his latest triumph, a collaboration with Gehry on a concert hall at Bard College in New York state, Toyota rattles on wistfully about the imponderables that beset his profession. Borda coins executorial clichés. Salonen sings a few bars from that old circus-band chestnut “Entrance of the Gladiators,” which he had tried out with some Philharmonic musicians the day before.

“You have just heard the first live music performed in front of an audience in Disney Hall,” he proudly proclaims, leaving unspoken the promise that the next music will be better.

Ten days later . . . Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony is the obvious choice for the last-ever music the Philharmonic will play in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion; it ends with the orchestra members, one by one, moseying offstage as the music oozes to its finish. It’s not so obvious a choice for archmodernist Pierre Boulez to conduct, but he goes along in fine fashion. Concertmaster Martin Chalifour, the last one out in the Haydn, will be the first one in at the Disney Hall inaugural on October 23, leading off with some Bach for solo violin.

Before the concert there are memories: Philharmonic players Richard Kelley, Roy Tanabe and Michele Zukovsky reminisce about what it was like to play in the Chandler when it was new, 39 years ago. The accounts are as expected, rose-colored memories of Mrs. Chandler’s great new hall, a giant step up from the seedy old Philharmonic Auditorium, such modern splendor, such great lighting, even — bite your tongue! — such grand acoustics. With all the fond memories of bygone leadership, two names are absent, to nobody’s surprise. One is Willem Wijnbergen, who enjoyed a teensy interregnum between Ernest Fleischmann and Borda. The other is André Previn, the self-willed low point in Philharmonic lore.

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