The Walt Disney Concert Hall at 20: How a Los Angeles Living Room Became an Icon

The Walt Disney Concert Hall at 20: How a Los Angeles Living Room Became an Icon

Walt Disney Concert Hall | Credit: Antoine Tavenot

The year was 1987, and the check was for $50 million, signed by Lillian Disney. And with it began an epic tale—the construction of Walt Disney Concert Hall—that would put Los Angeles on the cultural map, much to the envy of other arts audiences, including New York City, whose Carnegie Hall was the apotheosis of the original sound. Since 1891.

However, no one knew that it would take another 16 years Before the magnificent Frank Gehry-designed structure (we’re talking more than 22 million pounds, or 10,000 metric tons, of steel) opened its doors. Resembling a majestic sea vessel, its sails billowing in the wind, this 300,000-square-foot venue – a collection of bizarre shapes with undulating walls – continues to attract music lovers and tourists alike.

In fact, with its Douglas fir-lined interior, vineyard-style seating, seating for 2,265, and crystalline acoustics designed by Yasuhisa Toyota, Disney Hall, home to both the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and the Los Angeles Master Chorale, truly embodies the vision of Jerry’s creativity “Living room for the city.” It came with a price tag of $274 million, a real bargain in today’s market.

Frank Gehry in 2010 | Credit: Forgemind ArchiMedia

Also instrumental in helping to build the hall was Ernest Fleishman, who served as executive director of the LA Phil from 1969 to 1998. When asked how music influenced his design of the venue and how architecture in turn influences musical performances, Gehry responded in an email that it was “He had the good fortune to know Ernst Fleischmann, (who) was my classical music teacher.” music. He introduced me to all the bandleaders and musicians.

Gehry, who turns 95 in February, also noted that Fleischmann took him to “the best concert halls in the world,” adding that he “helped me understand the relationship between audience and performer. In many ways, he was preparing me for the Disney Concert Hall. I learned a lot.” About how the musicians feel about the room, and how important it is to make sure they feel like the audience.

The relationship between audience and musicians proved to be nothing less than a mutual love-fest, especially on the night of October 23, 2003, when then-music director Esa-Pekka Salonen led the Los Angeles Phil and Maestro Chorale in the first of three ceremonies. Concerts with Igor Stravinsky Spring ritual Among the most prominent of these programs.

Camille Avellano | Credit: Ryan Hunter

Los Angeles first violinist Camille Avellano, who joined the orchestra in 1981, was there when the hall opened and played under four music directors: Carlo Maria Giulini, Andre Previn, Salonen, and Gustavo Dudamel (whose term began in 2009 and continues until the end of the 2025-2026 season, when he will become Music and Artistic Director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.). The move from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, which has been home to the Los Angeles Phil since 1964, was highly anticipated, and needless to say, he did not disappoint.

Avellano’s memories of the opening night parties are still vivid. “It was exhilarating, of course,” said the musician, who grew up in Chicago, where her father played principal bass with the Chicago Symphony for 49 years. “And after playing Spring ritual In Chandler, having that live sound at Disney, (where) it’s a more intimate space — you’re not too far away from everyone — it was exhilarating to have the audience all around us. “It sounded like a great chamber music concert.”

Jerry also admitted that music and performing arts have transformed him “in a powerful way,” adding that “one of the most important aspects is creating an intimate relationship between the musicians and the audience. If the audience feels connected to the performers, they will respond more positively.”

The architect continued: “The performer will feel the audience’s love, and will perform better, creating a virtuous cycle that can lead to some great performances. A room can make or break that human connection, so it’s essential to create a space where everyone feels comfortable and welcome.”

At 20 years old, Disney Hall is still “a beautiful place to play in. It’s visually stunning; it’s a beautiful place to play in,” Avellano admitted. I especially like the interior. It’s like I’m inside a big cello. This is what it feels like, (and) it’s still a lot of fun. I have to say that being close to the audience is really nice. You feel like you’re getting immediate feedback, which is nice.

Grant Gershon | Credit: David Johnston

For California-born Grant Gershon, who had been living in New York for several years in the late 1990s, returning to Los Angeles in 2001 to become music director of the Master Chorale was a no-brainer. While the choir was still performing in Chandler at the time, the idea of ​​opening Disney Hall just two years later was the icing on that musical cake.

“Being in the concert hall for the first performance was absolutely overwhelming,” explained Gershon, who has conducted more than 200 major choral performances at Disney Hall. “It was as if I was hearing the choral master for the first time. Esa-Pekka and the Phil Players say almost the same thing about Their first experience. (But) I feel that the choir was more important than the orchestra.

Gershon, whose recording credits includes a 2022 Grammy Award for Best Choral Performance with Dudamel and the L.A. Phil for their Deutsche Grammophon recording of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, said the opening night performance in 2003 was a “revelation.” Because we spent our whole lives at the back of the stage in Dorothy Chandler, we were like a football field away from the nearest audience member.

“To suddenly be in this hall,” Gershon said impassionedly, “where we are surrounded by the audience and they are close enough to touch us and we are all in the same room — we actually hear the sound of the voice, every breath the singers take.

And while no one can deny that Carnegie Hall is a great concert venue, Gershon, who knows the New York venue intimately, is not surprisingly partial to his hometown hall. “They’re really different,” he admitted, “but the biggest difference is that you’re surrounded by people at Disney.”

“It feels like the sound is traveling in every direction, filling every inch of the concert hall space and reverberating. It’s an activation of the building. Carnegie Hall is a proscenium stage and it’s basically just in front of you, but the sense in Disney Hall that you’re activating the space is very palpable and very different.” About any other hall I’ve been in.

“The energy of the composition, the fact that you have this feeling of connection with the audience all around you – there is no separation between the listener and the performers on stage,” Gershon explained.

Inside Walt Disney Concert Hall Credit: Kodera23

Bing Wang, associate concert director of the Los Angeles Phil, agrees. Having joined the orchestra in 1994, the violinist had also performed in the opening concert two decades earlier. She recalled that it was “like a dream – in the best way.” We had three days of celebrations with different programmes. Spring ritual He embodied the acoustic sound of the hall and orchestra.

“It was like an earth-shattering piece of art at the time, and I’m still excited to play there,” Wang noted. “I was there as an audience (member) and a musician on stage. It’s obviously different, (but) I have to say, and maybe it sounds corny.” “But I’m still in awe when I go out into the audience and listen to a concerto or a smaller piece of music. It still feels like a dream – that this is our place and this is the place we play every day. We have Frank Gehry to thank for designing a hall like this and that we don’t “We get tired of it. It feels like it’s alive.”

Then there’s the idea that performing at Disney Hall certainly helped change the DNA of the principal choir. The organization has transformed from a largely volunteer choir into a choir of 100 professional singers, has staged more than 34 world premieres, and composed some 38 commissions of original music, including the upcoming Billy Childs composition. In the arms of a lover.

The Los Angeles Master Chorale in a recent performance at Disney Hall Credit: Jimmy Pham Photography

“Honestly, I’m not sure that the choral landmark would exist — at least not in the way we know it now — without Disney Hall,” Gershon said. “It opened up so many possibilities for us. First and foremost, it energized the audience in a way we’ve never seen before. From growing our subscription audience, individual ticket audience, and creating a sense of excitement and event around each concert.

“Because of that energy,” Gershon enthuses, “because of the increase in the size and scope of the audience, which has allowed us to become completely professional, to experiment much more freely with the repertoire and also with the way we present the repertoire so that we can create it.” More immersive experiences – whether in theatrical productions, or collaborations with other art entities and forms, with light and video installations. There are all kinds of possibilities to harness the energy of a concert hall. It has transformed music and the way we perform it as well.

While Gershon fondly remembers countless memorable concerts, he cited last year’s performance Music to accompany departureDrDirected by Peter Sellars, as outstanding. (The choral master also toured the production in Europe earlier this year and recently performed it in Berkeley.)

A scene from the Los Angeles Master Chorale Music to accompany departure | Credit: Brian Weinzimer

Gershon noted that the design of the hall provides exciting ways to explore the space within it Music to accompany departure. “At the end of (Piece), composer Heinrich Schütz calls for the presence of different trios of singers in different parts of the space and specifically says: “Two of the singers are angels, the other is the spirit of the blessed departed.”

“At Disney, we were able to take advantage of all those overhead spaces — because they’re so tall — so that while we were on stage, the audience could sense the spirit voices coming from above, and you couldn’t tell where the sound was coming from. It was like the universe itself was responding to what we were singing on stage.” These types of activities in the hall are memorable and unique to that space.

Avellano, who will retire at the end of this season, has vivid memories of performing Salonen’s piece in 2004. Wing upon wing In the first show. “It was like, ‘Wow!'” she exclaimed. She also agreed with Gershon that the hall’s unique design lends itself to multifunctionality.

“I think they did some very creative things with the space, given that it is a concert hall. The way things were built enabled them to put on productions that regular concert halls couldn’t do. It was built with that in mind. (eg. ,) The cranes are hydraulic, and you can make the stage area larger or smaller.

Ping Wang

Looking back at some of the many noteworthy concerts she had given, Wang recalled that performing Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 under Dudamel was “a defining moment for me. It was important in (Dudamel’s) career. He won the Mahler Competition (in 2004) and played it in his concert The first is at Disney Hall.

Wang said she also enjoyed celebrating the LA Phil’s centennial in 2019 and working with three of the orchestra’s celebrated music directors: Zubin Mehta (1962-1978); Salonen (1992–2009), now a laureate conductor; And Dudamel, who was recently nominated with the L.A. Phil for his sixth Grammy Award Hades: Dante. “This will stay with me. These three music directors are very dear and (belong) to three generations.”

“All the concerts were amazing,” admitted Gehry, who can often be seen in the audience at Phil’s Sunday morning concerts, adding that “Esa-Pekka’s world premiere is in 2023.” this It was unusual. You filled the hall so beautifully. I was in tears.

And while many concertgoers may cringe at the thought of the 42-year-old Dudamel bidding farewell to the orchestra in less than three years, there is still plenty of music to be played in the hall that Gehry built, and its welcoming living room. A symbol of all that is good about Los Angeles. It is no coincidence that the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said: “Without music, life would be a mistake.”

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