Perhaps it is fitting that in
a city consumed by cinema, the sound in the new Walt Disney Concert
Hall has a gripping, Technicolor immediacy, as if the seats were positioned
directly in front of an enormous panoramic screen. Frank Gehry and the
brilliant acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota have given us a space with an
almost palpable, tangible "feel" to the sonic picture that
is extremely pleasurable. I donít think itís too early to say that Los
Angeles now has one of the best places in the world in which to hear
classical music. (For reference, my favorite hall is the Concertgebouw
in Amsterdam, with Carnegie in New York a very close second.) As a New
Yorker, itís making me a bit envious.
With contemporary musicians more
accustomed to its demands, Mahlerís sprawling Second Symphony
has become almost as ubiquitous as Beethovenís Ninth, but the
former is perhaps even better for testing a hallís acoustics. On every
page, the score requires the massive ensemble to zigzag between earthshaking
barrages of sound and treacherously exposed solos for all instruments.
Like much of Mahler, this piece works an orchestra pretty hard.
Salonen launched into the first
movement with tempi on the swift, hell-bent side, opting for brazen
ferocity, with tense, angry strings anchored by the double basses rearing
up like wild horses. The hallís uncanny clarity seemed a boon to the
musicians, as their gifted conductor seemed to revel in urging them
past the generally advisable speed limit, and if I had access to Gehryís
shiny new sports car, Iíd probably want to take it for a spin, too.
Salonen and this orchestra must be thrilled, and it absolutely came
across in the caliber of their playing. About halfway through, the orchestra
romped through a furious, devastating march that then wound down, before
suddenly rising up again like a dragon with dramatic, decisive unison
octaves, followed by silence. Miraculously, as the resonance from the
final brutal punch hung in the air, the hall was silent. The
audience hardly breathed, as if even the sound of an exhalation would
break the mood. (Given the vivid feedback in the room, a particularly
loud breath might indeed be audible throughout the house. If someone
drops a coin on the balcony floor, everyone will know about it.)
Here, and generally all night,
the brass were splendid, with confident intonation and often anchoring
the entire ensemble. The sardonic middle movement (St. Anthonyís sermon
to the fishes) glistened with the woodwinds rippling through its graceful,
bubbling textures, and the hall enabling audibility of every single
strand. The oboe and clarinet passages almost made me chuckle out loud,
as did the clacking of the sparingly used wooden blocks.
As Monica Groop stood up to begin
the "Urlicht," the audience again became completely still,
anticipating her entrance. She seemed completely calm as her mellow
voice poured out and enveloped the space, and I became lost in blissful
contemplation. The movement only lasts about five minutes, but in the
right hands seems timeless.
In the opening of the final movement,
Salonen probably caught some unwary listeners by surprise with a huge
thunderclap ricocheting off the warm wooden walls. In the pages that
followed, many instrumental lines were audible that are sometimes slightly
obscured in other venues. The offstage effects, such as the interruption
by a distant marching band, were carefully gauged to be just loud enough,
while maintaining a dreamlike, faraway quality. Eventually the radiant
Christiane Oelze joined in effortlessly, her high notes easily sailing
above but not overpowering the blend, and the Los Angeles Master Chorale,
immaculately prepared by Grant Gershon, sounded glorious in Gehryís
dramatic space. If they did not quite produce that transcendental "hush"
in their initial entrance, I quickly forgot about it while basking in
their refined approach, disciplined diction and elegant sound. Again
the effect was almost visual, as if everyone had collaborated on an
enormous painting that rose up and hovered in the air in front of us.
In the final spectacular minutes,
the orchestraís outstanding organist, Joanne Pearce Martin, seemed to
relish her chance to at last leap into the mix, and she sounded superb
even using an electronic organ. (Technicians are putting the finishing
touches on the striking centerpiece designed by Gehry and Los Angeles
organ designer Manuel Rosales. The 6,125-pipe instrument is already
making listeners salivate and will be ready next year.) As the chorus
ascended to the inexorable rapture of the closing pages, Salonen expertly
terraced the approach, making the most of the workís overwhelming conclusion.
I heard two performances, on Thursday
and Friday nights, sitting first in the middle of the Terrace level
above, and then on the side overlooking the orchestra, which provided
a different but equally vivid perspective. As an analogy, imagine a
cube made of three layers of transparent plastic: clear, yellow and
blue. When viewed from the front, the colors combine to appear green,
but from the side, the separate bands of color are visible. The side
section offered this kind of auditory equivalent, with each instrumental
section clearly defined. I closed my eyes and enjoyed being able to
clearly pinpoint the massed strings at left, woodwinds and brass in
the middle, and percussion on the right. Granted, this is probably not
always an ideal soundstage, but I found it had an immediacy and thrust
that were thrilling. It must be said that there seem to be few bad seats
anywhere in the place.
On Thursday night, the orchestra
played almost flawlessly, with some of the most gleaming trumpet playing
Iíve ever heard. Principal Donald Green received several well-deserved
ovations at the close. And those trombones and horns! If Friday night
was not quite as pristine, perhaps Salonen had urged the players to
cut loose a little more, and the payoff was a performance with even
greater passion, even more broadly emotional. Throughout, Salonen seemed
to encourage extremes in volume -- lower lows and higher highs -- as
if exulting in testing the new laboratory.
Perhaps recognizing the sense
of occasion, the L.A. audience was exemplary, whether mesmerized by
Salonenís electricity or the new venue, or both. A live concert invariably
incurs stray noises, but these performances had many fewer than most.
After the initial reaction subsides
to Gehryís supernova of a building, it will be interesting to see how
the sound is perceived in the wake of these opening weeks. The allure
of the space is so seductive that it is hard to resist transferring
the visual excitement to what your ears are hearing. More than with
many halls, the breathtaking flood of curving lines and planes seems
to invite you in, somehow subtly preparing your brain to receive music.
It didnít hurt to recall, for a moment, Disneyís 1940ís classic Fantasia,
a film that, despite some kitsch and the editing in the music, nevertheless
jump-started many young classical music lovers. He would probably be
delighted at the prospect that this modern, sculptural marvel will radically
change the Los Angeles musical scene.