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February 20, 2008

Why build a new concert hall? Listen here...

Joe Nickell

I'm standing in a crease between two towering folds of brushed stainless steel, looking up. A wall of glass fills the seam, partially reflecting the cold glint of metal and city lights outside, simultaneously revealing the warm glow of welcoming light and blond wood inside the building. Rooted in my tracks, gawking, I know I look like a tourist, and I just don't care.

I'm supposed to do this, of course - supposed to be overwhelmed with awe as I walk through the doors of Walt Disney Concert Hall, the most audacious work of architecture in the extravagant history of Los Angeles and the most paradigm-busting concert hall built anywhere in the world during the past generation. A few minutes later, standing inside the lobby, I watch through the glass as a well-dressed couple stops outside the front door and repeats my heavenward gaze.

WDCH-view_from_courthouse_hiCan you see what I see, feel what I feel? No, of course; you can't. To twist a familiar truism, writing about architecture is like dancing about music. Words can't create the experience itself - especially when the experience involves Disney Hall. Great architecture, like a great concert performance, demands first-hand engagement for real appreciation.

Therein lies the rub for backers of the proposed performing arts center here where I live, in Missoula, Montana. Central to their pitch for the project is the assertion that Missoula's current performance halls - specifically, the University Theater and the Wilma Theater -- don't cut it: The stages are too small, the proscenium arches too narrow, the dressing rooms inadequate, the lobbies cramped, the seats too few.

Over the past year, concerns about the cost of the facility to taxpayers (who, according to the center's plan, will be asked to foot a $20 million bond to cover 1/3 of total construction costs) have dominated public discussions.

But lurking behind that fiscal consideration is a more basic fact, I suspect: People simply don't see the need.

Few people, after all, call their city council representatives to complain about the cost of groceries. We may grouse amongst ourselves about the cost of gasoline, but we continue to buy more and more of it. For most of us, those expenses - which total thousands of dollars a year - are presumed necessities of modern life.

So what's the problem with spending less than $50 a year (the estimated per-household cost of the bond) to help build a world-class performance hall? I suspect the answer is as simple as this, for many people: We've already got two big concert halls.

Why build another?


It was with that question in mind that I attended a concert at Disney Hall last Friday evening. The occasion was a performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic of Gustav Mahler's Sixth "Tragic" Symphony.

As I mentioned above, Disney Hall is a place imbued with the power to impress even before you walk through the front door. Designed by Frank Gehry, its luminescent, curvilinear steel exterior brings to mind a gigantic magician's hat cast casually to the ground. A grand stair sweeps up from the sidewalk into a crease between two of the tall steel folds, placing the building's entrance on a kind of pedestal from the pedestrian perspective.

Sleek, soft-toned wood dominates the lobbies, which array around the central concert hall in small tiers separated by stairways. Here, the experience is, if anything, the opposite of awe: From wherever you stand, you can see hundreds of people milling about; yet the subdivision of the space is such that you never feel overwhelmed by the masses of humanity that swirl around you. There's always a sense you might see someone you know, and be able to stop for a chat in a quiet corner.

Then the bell rings, the lights flash, and you know it's time to enter the concert hall. Appointed with a spectacularly sculptural organ and framed, again, in soft wood tones, the hall is both breathtaking and yet disarmingly cozy. My friend, Doug McClennan (editor of ArtsJournal.com), aptly says it's "like sitting inside a cello."

wdch002_hiSeats are arrayed in broken-up sections, few of which consist of more than eight rows; they fully encircle the stage, which is situated at the very bottom of the oblong bowl. Only the people sitting in the front three rows of seats actually look up at the stage; the rest of the audience looks down upon the musicians - and across at their fellow audience-members.

The effect of this environment is revelatory (it doesn't hurt that Disney Hall is widely regarded as possessing the best acoustics of any concert hall in America). From where I sat during the concert - a few rows up, stage right -- I could literally read the music on the page of the first violin players. I could see almost everyone in the hall, from the back row to the front; and they could see me. No proscenium or raised stage separated the orchestra from the audience.

One moment in the performance stood out. In the fourth movement of his gargantuan symphony, Mahler called for two hammer blows to ring out: the pounding thuds of fate. For this performance, the orchestra's percussionists had built a huge wooden box, about six feet tall, with a hole in one side; on top of it sat a cartoonishly large mallet.

At the appointed moment in the music, one of the percussionists climbed a small set of stairs and stood over the box, which sat at the back of the stage, mere feet below a row of seats. In those seats sat a group of young adults - college students, perhaps. When the player raised the mallet and landed his first blow, every one of the people in that row jolted in their seats. A few giggled and looked at each other.

Sure, it was an irreverent response. But it was real, and - thanks to the design of the hall - it became part of the concert.

That's the thing: A concert in Disney Hall feels more like communion, an engagement, than simply a show. You are part of the performance. It's the perfect space for the YouTube generation.


Missoula will not get Disney Hall for $60 million. But many of the principles of its design - the lack of a proscenium, the large stage, the intimate arrangement of the seating, the large lobby - have been incorporated into the design of the proposed building. This isn't just about a new building; it's about a new way of experiencing a performance.

Do we need that? It's hard to say.

But unfortunately, the parameters of the question aren't clear to many people around here. For those who've never attended a concert in a hall designed to modern standards, it's difficult to appreciate how the experience might be completely different from what we have encountered in the past.

It's like trying to convince a color-blind man that there's an important difference between red and green.

"You're envisioning something that doesn't exist, so you really do have to dream; but you can't demonstrate through your current programming what's possible or what's missing, and so it's hard to build that constituency support," said Laura Millin, director of the Missoula Art Museum, which completed a $4.25 million renovation and expansion in 2006. "I've felt all along that that's a huge handicap."

Time will only tell if that handicap is an Achilles Heel, or only a flesh wound.

cross-posted at Nickellbag.com

Posted by Joe Nickell at February 20, 2008 2:38 PM


Joe, you didn't mention the extremely fraught history of Walt Disney Concert Hall, which took about 14 years from Gehry's hiring to the hall's opening, and which for many yrs was a municipal embarrassment, a useless slab of concrete, with a parking garage beneath it and nothing on top, before fundraising got on track - with a final price of $284 million that was more than double what was first envisioned. The new Cesar Pelli-designed Segerstrom Concert Hall in Orange County, CA (pop 3 million) also has exquisite sound and intimacy, and it cost $240 million, sans architectural pyrotechnics. That was $40 million more than expected and the performing arts center that built it is still about $70 million short in its fundraising. Same pattern occurred in Philly and Miami concert hall projects. Preliminary cost estimates for cultural buildings, especially concert halls, are wishful works of fiction. Nashville's new hall, which I think cost $120 million or so, may have been the recent on-budget exception. One question you need to ask is that, given those prices, are acoustically decent concert halls buildable today for $60 million? And unless you've got a deep-pockets donor community impassioned about the local orchestra and willing to guarantee completion, is it worth taking the risk that today's $60 million estimate will turn into 2012's $80 million or $100 million reality? Also, does the orchestra truly need a new hall to grow creatively and economically? Or will it be pretty much the same product in a new package? The tenant orchestra needs to be ready to step up both in performance and in the fundraising needed to sustain better performance. That's a lot of puzzle pieces to have lined up.

Joe Nickell replies: Mike, you're absolutely right in all these points, and they're definitely important. My intent with this particular exercise in writing was to point out one aspect of the challenge on the local level regarding this performing arts center. We've addressed some of those other questions in other coverage at the paper -- though not necessarily all of them in one place that can easily be digested. As you say, there are lots of puzzle-pieces....And that makes it hard to be comprehensive in all the stories we do. But yeah, absolutely, on all of the above! Thanks for writing again Mike!

Posted by: Mike Boehm at February 21, 2008 1:38 PM

If this is to be a multi-purpose hall, which I assume it is, you are making a common mistake - the hall gets designed for the symphony who will use it only 20% of the time and then all the other arts groups have to attempt to use a space that doesn't fit them. Dance is particularly hard hit by this as the open stage style that you mentioned above becomes more common. Though the big dollar donors seem to come most from the music audience, they need to be shown the benefits of a facility that supports all the performing arts.

Joe Nickell responds: Hi there, thanks for commenting. I'm not sure I'm the one making a common mistake, insofar as I'm not the one deciding what this hall will be. My point is only to share with others the experience of visiting a concert hall designed according to more current philosophies of arts presentation, and to thus point out the connundrum that arts center supporters (here and, I suspect, everywhere where a new hall is planned) find themselves with: How to convince people that a new hall is necessary to continue advancing the arts. This is but one piece of a big puzzle. You're right that the same hall doesn't always equally accomodate various performing arts; It'd be pretty weird to experience a play in Disney Hall, I suspect. Missoula's concert hall is aimed, at least on paper, at being a multi-use hall...meaning, presumably, compromises in many ways. Time will tell if that can be pulled off. Again, thanks for writing.

Posted by: slandess at February 25, 2008 8:43 AM

This is not a good time to order a new concert hall. Architects today have a dismal record with them, mounting one disaster after another. Only Nashville has done well, by adhering to classical rules. Why do the contemporary architects fail? Ego, for one thing. Most of all, the failure to employ decorative elements in the hall to fill the eye and fill the ear with soundwaves that have been refracted off of innumerable surfaces. The problems date all the way back to the '70s, when the so-called acoustical experts arrived on the scene. Not one of their buildings has been an unqualified success. They built in their own escape hatch by creating movable, fixable systems allowing them to endlessly tinker with their creation to try to get it to work. Modern halls are more degrading than uplifting. They glamorize, but fail to spiritualize.

Posted by: s z at February 26, 2008 2:56 PM

Disney is not a multi-purpose hall. One of its joys and drawbacks is that it is created exclusively for orchestra performances. In Milwaukee, Uihlein Hall in the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, a facility built in the late 60s--a publicly finance county project: imagine that! It hosts the symphony, opera company, ballet company and Broadway musical touring shows. But the orchestra has complained about the acoustics for years, mostly because the flyspace needed for theater productions sucks the sound into the rafters. A recent renovation of the interior has improved the acoustics quite a bit. But this will always present a problem for spaces which are designed for multiple uses.

Posted by: Paul Kosidowski at February 29, 2008 9:28 PM

hey, Joe -- sorry only just getting to this and mainly I just want to say I am so glad you went to WDCH and had the time you did. That first experience is unbelievable...and it only gets better. Come back!

Posted by: Sasha Anawalt at March 6, 2008 12:26 AM