Consider the irony. In 1940 there was Fantasia, the hat-in-hand appeal by the Walt Disney Studios to secure a blessing from the citadels of High Culture. Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was the big number, its 33 minutes hacked down by a third, its sequence of events deranged, its scenario a ludicrous if colorful number involving amoebas, dinosaurs, floods and earthquakes, introduced in Deems Taylor’s patronizing exordium. Stravinsky was, naturally, furious; the names of Walt Disney and classical music would be forever sundered — until last week, when the Walt Disney Concert Hall opened its doors, with Stravinsky’s masterwork — this time integral — again on the agenda.
Another Rite of Spring, a dazzling performance by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, lingered in many ears, many memories. In 1996, Salonen and the Philharmonic had performed it in a three-week Stravinsky Festival at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, known for its terrific acoustics and an architecture that put orchestra and audience practically in each other’s laps. A large contingent of Philharmonic board members were on that Paris junket, and when they returned home, they brought the obsession that, come what may, Los Angeles also had the right to hear what its orchestra really sounded like — a privilege denied within the blocky precincts of the Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Ground had already been broken for a new concert hall, designed by Frank Gehry and with acoustic design by Yasuhisa Toyota, but the work had stopped. Now, nothing would do but that the concrete mixers and the welding torches once again be activated. Last week the results of that insistence gave Los Angeles’ musical life — and, for that matter, the nationwide institution of performed classical music, languishing of late — a rebirth whose consequences are exhilarating to contemplate.
Everything — well, almost everything — about that seductive, welcoming room of wood, set within the incandescent curves and sparkles of its lustrous metal wrapping, deserves place in the jubilation. There are, of course, problems; did you ever hear of a new performing space that emerged unbeset by problems the first time out? Salonen and the orchestra have already encountered, and for the most part solved, small matters of echo and dead spots here and there, and the tweaking will go on into the future. In the opening-night gala there were things that didn’t work. I detected serious unbalances as the Master Chorale sang a complex, densely grained work of György Ligeti (the Lux Aeterna, which has also had a movie career, thanks to Kubrick’s 2001). The Gabrieli Canzona for antiphonal brass ensembles might have worked better if some of the players had performed in a balcony area, rather than across the orchestra seating.
But then came the tidy little Mozart symphony (No. 32), with the interplay between winds and strings suspended in midair, the horns and drums resounding like the lights on a distant shore. This was a sound of music you can remember from the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra at Royce Hall, or remember more faintly from visiting orchestras at the Ambassador Auditorium, but never in the precincts at First Street and Grand. In the nine minutes of that crystal-textured performance was exemplified every reason for the building of this great new music-space, and every hope for its success. The Stravinsky after intermission carried its own bag of thrills; could anyone hear the rich resonance of Raynor Carroll’s bass drum — or the clamorous interplay of the winds, or the dark mysteries of muted brass — without sending up flares of gratitude to architect and acoustician, and without remembering Paris? By intermission, the dreams of this city’s hopeful concertgoers had already been fulfilled.
Certain other problems may require more imaginative solutions. The very liveness that endows the sounds of music making in the hall also resounds to its detriment. A cough anywhere in the hall, a dropped program or — heaven forfend! — a cell phone is immediately and emphatically audible. So are footsteps on the wood flooring or, worse, on the stairways in the terrace and balcony levels. On the opening nights, the voices of broadcast engineers behind the balcony area also carried throughout the hall. Members of the orchestra have spoken about the problems in getting used to their new performing area; it must also happen that audiences will face these problems. Somewhere in this world, people take off their shoes before entering public spaces.
On the second night the music making was of more challenging mien, although both Salonen’s own LA Variations, which began the program, and Revueltas’ Sensemaya, which ended it, have been elevated to local classics. John Adams’ The Dharma at Big Sur, co-commissioned by the Philharmonic and the Orange County Philharmonic Society, may someday join their ranks. The inspiration is indigenous California, the roadrunner fictions of Jack Kerouac, and the music of Terry Riley and Lou Harrison that stretches out to the harmonies of the Pacific Rim. It’s a strange but appealing work, a minute or two overlong, perhaps. Tracy Silverman, the soloist who belongs among the inspirers, plays a six-string electronic violin into a microphone and into processing circuitry; it gives him the remarkable ability to carry a lyric line all the way from the highest notes of a normal violin down into cello territory. The lines Adams has given him are powerful and seductive; you hear them as a single, nonstop outpouring. Therein lies the Lou Harrison connection.
Having heard another Adams premiere — the intense, harrowing, Pulitzer-winning On the Transmigration of Souls — in Orange County earlier last week, I might be justified in regarding Dharma as something of a lightweight. On the other hand, the Pacific Chorale and Pacific Symphony were so poorly led by John Alexander, miles out of his depth, that I’m not sure I heard the work at all. Both works, obviously, need further hearing. Both proclaim Adams as one of our worthiest modern masters. Meanwhile, back at Disney, further exultation on the matter of Friday’s program devolves upon the phenomenal Yo-Yo Ma, set loose on Witold Lutoslawski’s gloriously quizzical Cello Concerto. Lutoslawski, another worthy master, visited us often in his time and is much missed; this concerto from 1970, with its fascinating back-and-forth argle-bargle between soloist and orchestra and its trick ending that leaves you dangling, belongs among his masterpieces.
I’ve left myself no space to gurgle about the Disney surroundings: the gardens, the great blue cabbage rose of a fountain, the sense of belonging that it shares with the city around it. Among last week’s masterpieces, the sunset on Thursday night also deserves honored mention. Our new hall has already earned its blessing from On High.