In 1987, Lillian Disney, Walt's widow, gave the Philharmonic $50 million to build a new concert hall because the orchestra, unhappy with the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion's dead sound, needed something better. The musicians' requirements and collective personality helped inspire Gehry's radical design. But with the building being hailed as the successor to the architect's celebrated Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and as a driving force for the redevelopment of downtown, Disney Hall will make a major impact on Los Angeles independent of the Philharmonic. Gehry's architecture put Bilbao on the map, not the art on the museum walls. The Sydney Opera House has lousy acoustics, and its resident opera company and symphony orchestra are not first rate, but that building—dramatically sweeping out into the harbor—is second only to the kangaroo as a symbol for Australia.
L.A. Philharmonic — An article in Sunday's Los Angeles Times Magazine about the Los Angeles Philharmonic's move to the new Walt Disney Concert Hall, incorrectly stated that conductor Georg Solti never conducted the orchestra. He guest conducted the L.A. Philharmonic in the 1950s.
Suddenly the situation for the Philharmonic has turned around. The question is no longer whether the hall can serve the musicians, but whether the musicians can serve the hall. Audiences for symphonic music are aging and dwindling. Across the nation, orchestra debts are on the rise, and a couple have folded. Art forms are not immortal. The death knell, some suggest, has begun for the symphony orchestra as a product of 19th and early 20th century Eurocentric culture.
No one orchestra can solely turn the tide, and orchestras are far from dead or irrelevant just yet. But change is in the air, and the L.A. Philharmonic, which has a feisty and sometimes sensationalist history of staking out its high-culture territory in the entertainment capital of the world, has designs on being the band of the future. Under Esa-Pekka Salonen, it has become America's most arresting orchestra. Moving into its new hall and polishing its futurist image as a venturesome ensemble with a hip, vibrant music director, the Los Angeles Philharmonic envisions itself the savior of the symphony.
The symphony orchestra is, indeed, still with us. Most cities of any size have at least one, and impressively large numbers of listeners hear them every week. Fifty years ago, a time nostalgically remembered as a Golden Age for the orchestra, there were only a handful that really mattered. Called the "Big Five," the orchestras of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Chicago lorded over the rest. They had the biggest budgets, hired the best players, had the most impressive histories, attracted the most famous conductors, occupied prime real estate in the country's most important centers of culture and dominated American classical music. Now there is considerably more competition.
Today the Los Angeles Philharmonic's budget of about $57 million is second in America only to the Boston Symphony. East Coast orchestras envy the excitement generated by Salonen in Los Angeles. And excellent players can be found just about anywhere. A good night in Atlanta, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Baltimore, Houston or Minnesota can be more rewarding than an average night with one of the old "Big Five."
Under ideal circumstances—the right music and conductor, proper acoustics and ambience, enough rehearsal time—the Los Angeles Philharmonic is a great orchestra. The only problem is that L.A. audiences don't know it. The Chandler sucks up bass and gives the impression of slowing down the speed of sound. Amplification at the Hollywood Bowl robs the orchestra's sound of its physical presence—that's the aural equivalent of carrots left in the microwave until they turn limp. They sizzle, but that's all they do.
The turning point in the Philharmonic's path to its new home came in 1996, when Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic traveled to Paris to play Stravinsky, whom the French think of as one of their own. So do Angelenos. It was as a young Russian émigré in Paris during the second decade of the 20th century that he had his breakthrough with three ballets: "The Firebird," "Petrushka" and, most importantly, "The Rite of Spring." French became Stravinsky's adopted language and culture. But the composer moved on, fleeing World War II Europe, and he ended up living longer in Los Angeles than any other city.
Stravinsky's association with the Los Angeles Philharmonic began when Otto Klemperer became music director in 1933 and almost immediately began playing the composer's music. After Stravinsky moved here, he was often asked to guest conduct the orchestra. His music courses through its collective blood and is such a strong influence on Salonen that the conductor almost bought Stravinsky's home in the hills above the Sunset Strip. Salonen, also a composer, says what stopped him was the thought of writing music with Stravinsky's ghost looking over his shoulder.
The L.A. Philharmonic's Stravinsky performances in France were given in the Théâtre du Châtelet where many of the composer's premieres had taken place. The Philharmonic was spectacular. The Châtelet has an acoustical liveliness the Chandler does not; it was astonishing how Stravinsky's brutal, exciting rhythms became newly energizing. After the Philharmonic's performance of "The Rite of Spring," I felt more alive, more alert, more part of the Parisian street outside the theater. A force was at work, and at that moment I knew that somehow Disney Hall would be built.
Fund-raising for the hall had languished after the riots and economic downturn of the early '90s. By 1996, few believed a hall, with costs rising to $272 million, would ever be built. But Paris galvanized Philharmonic supporters who toured with the orchestra. Patrons who had been inured to the Chandler became converts to the concept of a new hall that promised a radically different approach to acoustics, a hall in which the audience would feel in direct contact with the players. And Disney Hall was resurrected.
Orchestras are a surprisingly little-studied social phenomenon. Nothing else in society, let alone art, is like them. The L.A. Philharmonic maintains 105 full-time players; several more fill in when extra harps, percussion, brass or winds are needed for large or unusually scored works. Many of these highly trained players are of soloist caliber, and some are conductors or composers themselves. Their musical egos tend to range from large to massive, but their job is to work in harmony with 100 other extra-strong personalities at the service of someone else's—the conductor's—will.
Group dynamics among musicians, always complex, have only intensified now that orchestras are no longer exclusive clubs for white males. Cultural cliques, romances and animosities are not uncommon—and they are sometimes absurd. There was the case of one mid-sized American orchestra where two flutists with a mutual hatred shared a music stand for years but refused to speak to each other.
But the most mysterious aspect of an orchestra's collective psyche is the way it processes its history. The Los Angeles Philharmonic has players from many parts of the world, players with diverse backgrounds, some of whom remember Stravinsky and some not yet born when he died in 1971. But there is a collective instinct in their fingers for his complicated rhythms and abrupt phrasing, the composer's style having passed down through generations of players. It's the same in other places with other composers or conductors. The New York Philharmonic remains, on some level, Leonard Bernstein's orchestra. The Vienna Philharmonic would have us believe that Mozart is among the living.
All orchestras must be sonic chameleons as well. In the four decades that I have closely observed the Los Angeles Philharmonic, it has, broadly speaking, mirrored the personality of its music director. Under a flashy Zubin Mehta it was a Technicolor band with blazing brass, silken sleek strings and tremendous energy. The poetic Italian conductor Carlo Maria Giulini brought out its soul, going after a richer, thicker, darker quality. André Previn favored the more restrained mauve shades of a British orchestra, but one that could swing. In the 12 seasons that Esa-Pekka Salonen has led the Los Angeles Philharmonic, it has become bright and brilliant sounding in a way that suits modern music and modern ears attuned to the exacting digital age.
But this orchestra's musical DNA is older. And deep in its checkered, colorful past lie some of the reasons why it is well situated for the future.
The Los Angeles Philharmonic originated as a rich man's toy. In 1919, William Andrews Clark plunked down $200,000 of his copper-baron father's money to hire first-chair players from the East Coast and steal the rest of the orchestra from the floundering Los Angeles Symphony. Fabulously rich, culturally sophisticated, civic-minded and plenty quirky, Clark had studied violin in Paris and started the Saint-Saëns String Quartet in Los Angeles. He was eager for Los Angeles to catch up with Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, St. Louis and San Francisco, all of which all had major orchestras.