Why build a new concert hall? Listen here...
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.
Can 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
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."
Seats 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
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.
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
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