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A Complex Edifice

By the end of the first millennium -- around 999, say -- California could boast a “politically stable, sedentary and conservative” population (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 13, Page 327), with a strong sense of community that included avid cultivation of the arts. These early Californians built apartment complexes where several families lived in adjoining spaces, and “sweat houses,” earth-covered proto-saunas that the males frequented daily. They also built communal, ceremonial performance spaces, holding several hundred participants who sang songs -- some short, some lasting several days -- about victories in battle and in lovemaking, accompanied by rattles, whistles and drums. The men and women managing these rituals functioned as a power elite, whose white deerskin clothes, adorned with such showoff items as hand-chipped obsidian knife blades, affirmed their social rank. In their lands near the present Santa Barbara, the nation of Esseles could have feasted on wild peccary, and so could the Salinans. (You can look it up.) According to theories as yet unconfirmed, they later underwent minor spelling changes and migrated to Los Angeles via Finland.

Some things changed over the next thousand years; some things didn’t. Today‘s ceremonial spaces are known as “performing arts centers”; while the music performed there seldom lasts several days, it often seems to. The aggregation of “rattles, whistles and drums” has evolved into the symphony orchestra, and while some will argue that this is an improvement, some will not. Communal ceremonies continue, notably in the annual “Messiah Sing-Along.” The place of performing-arts ensembles in society, the prestige assumed by their board chairpersons, and the skins and blades they employ to proclaim that prestige, remain about the same.

Construction began on the Disney Concert Hall last month: a link between millennia, forged in masonry and stainless steel. Its firm foundation is more than just a parking garage; its walls remain upright (or at whatever angle is prescribed in Frank Gehry’s marvelous design), bolstered by the widespread understanding that the arts are a good thing in the abstract, and an even better thing when expressed in structures tangible and visible.

The communal need for Disney Hall was never expressed in the abstract. Were there kinds of music that needed a different physical configuration than what the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion afforded? Will they be better off in Disney, which for all its imaginative design still preserves the implicit boundary line between performer and audience? (A real chamber-music hall, which the city does need, came and went rather early in Gehry‘s plans.) Were the Pavilion’s acoustical problems -- not horrible, merely rather drab -- so far beyond solving as to necessitate a new hall? (The relatively minor readjustment of the stage area, accomplished last summer, has already brought about noticeable improvement in the hall‘s sound. Perhaps more could have been accomplished along those lines, but no: Build We Must!)

Does Los Angeles need, want or even deserve a full-time opera house, which the Pavilion could now become? (Think back to the recent Hansel und Gretel, and a depressing parade of ailing shows prior to that one, and ask yourself whether this city’s fondest cultural aspiration is for more of the same, in a hall to contain it twice the proper capacity. The most interesting thing that happens in opera these days is the risk-taking in the way of imaginative stagings of repertory beyond the sing-along masterpieces. Even if the company‘s incoming management displays a passion for experiment so far undetected, how do you take risks with 3,000-plus seats to fill?)

The city is excited about the new hall, and should be. Gehry’s design -- even if the final decision is to surface it in Grape Nuts -- will draw crowds, which will include a fair number of ticket buyers, and that‘s all swell. But where are the announcements of the new works, the commissions (which surely should have gone out by now) to create an inaugural blast that will define how the new tenants regard their new playing field? What is to be their message of hope and cheer for an innovative future, as an orchestra, now hailed and envied worldwide, anoints a new century with its own dedication to adventure and integrity -- and as classical music’s most sanguine supporters fight to save their art from the twin monsters of bankruptcy and banality? (Yes, banality. Read the reports of the two grandiose large-scale symphonies, by reputable young American composers, recently commissioned by Disney for -- and played by -- the New York Philharmonic, and you may want to keep your life preserver handy.)

Acoustic design being the variant of Russian roulette it has proved more than once, you may also check the lifeboats as the predictions of sonic splendor ricochet even before the cornerstone is laid. Right now is a good time to check out the history of Lincoln Center‘s early days. Philharmonic Hall, the first building to open (in 1962), confounded the prognosticators of acoustic glory by turning out a disaster; several make-overs have only brought the sound in the hall up to not-quite-disgraceful. The fiasco was the first intimation that Lincoln Center might actually be founded on clay -- that a corporation boasting a couple of Rockefellers among its exalted ranks could actually falter in the realm of acoustic prediction. Within a couple of years practically every component of the cultural complex had been riven by firings, resignations, recriminations . . . whatever battle formats that the cultural elite, in white deerskin or white tie, indulge in when faced with matters that threaten their assumed immaculate powers. The saving grace was the fact that Carnegie Hall, which had been adjudged redundant as soon as Lincoln Center was conceived, escaped the wreckers’ ball and survived triumphant -- as, some four decades later, it remains.

I have no reason to doubt the projections of Disney Hall as a sonic marvel to match the splendor of its design, but I cradle my ancient ears in cotton every night to keep them in shape for “Judgment Day, the Disney Version.” I don‘t, in any case, envision the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion as a triumphant survivor. The recent sale of the Ambassador College campus does provide a glimmer of hope -- however faint -- for its long-lamented, acoustically splendid auditorium. But the buyer, Legacy Partners of Orange County, is in the realty business, not an enlightened concert management. It cannot have escaped its notice that the Ambassador campus -- a handsome property handy to freeways, thriving Old Pasadena, museums, etc. -- is a real estate bonanza like few others. Does an altruistic soul still exist, willing to maintain that fine performing space in its merited glory, rather than as a pile of condos?

Don’t hang by your thumbs on that one.

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