How Disney Hall Redeemed Frank Gehry

Gehry has just gifted downtown with its most potent symbol of renewal; such architectural monuments are expansive gestures of what it means to belong to a city.
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It was not always so. The Dorothy Chandler opened its first season on December 6, 1964, with a Jascha Heifetz recital and a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” led by conductor Zubin Mehta. Buffy Chandler stood beaming in the new founders room, greeting admirers before a full-length portrait of herself, and Bob Hope, Jack Benny and Rock Hudson were in attendance along with the L.A. Times, which wrote the next day of the beauty of the “asbestos curtain” and particularly of the hall’s acoustics, describing them as “enormously realistic.” Mehta, after opening with Richard Strauss’s Fanfare, turned to the audience and announced, “We like the acoustics!”

They were all, unfortunately, wrong; the Dorothy Chandler has always been a mediocre venue for symphonic performances. Salonen may have picked Mahler to close out the Chandler because, along with Stravinsky, he is one of the few composers whose booming work carries well in the house; pieces that highlight clarity and precision, such as those by Haydn or Mozart, sound like a wet blanket has been dropped on them inside the Chandler. The hall’s bland acoustics are a result of the fact that, even in 1964, fewer and fewer people were enjoying classical music in Los Angeles. It was designed with economics as much as acoustics in mind—a multipurpose hall capable of hosting operas, ballets, and the Philharmonic in the hope that the combined receipts would fund the property’s upkeep. Great halls like the Boston Symphony or Carnegie feature walls of huge mass that help carry bass resonance and reflect instrument sound. But the Chandler is essentially a granite roadhouse with a movable three-quarter-inch plywood stage shell. That flexible housing accommodates different types of performances, but it also sucks up the sound. Brass and woodwinds have to blow like mad to reach an audience, which makes them sound shrill at times, and the hall’s bass resonance, as Salonen believes, is just a disaster.

Salonen was hired by then-director Ernest Fleischmann, who had been tapped by Burry Chandler in the late 1960s. Fleischmann was a bully and an egotist; he humiliated subordinates and reportedly once said to Secret Service agents barring his way onto a hotel floor that contained the vice president, “Do you realize who I am?” He is also one of the most affable and urbane world travelers you will ever meet. It is somehow appropriate that his first sighting of a stretch limo came on the Anchorage tarmac in 1962, when the ladies of the local symphony, hearing that Fleischmann’s plane was refueling, drove out to feed him cake and milk. He was born in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, in 1924, fled to South Africa with his family when the Nazis rose to power, earned a degree in accounting, and then, at the age of 31, found himself organizing Johannesburg’s first major international arts festival. By 1959 he had left South Africa for England, where he was named manager of the London Symphony and became, for all practical purposes, a complete snob.

Fleischmann was appointed to the Philharmonic by Buffy Chandler in 1969. At that time Chandler and her board were controlling much of the artistic decision making at the Music Center. Fleischmann thought that classical music was too important to be left in the hands of socialites and philanthropists—it should be run by aesthetes—and he made it a condition of his hire that he didn’t have to answer to the board. You can imagine what Chandler and her board must have thought of their new director—a prima donna with a flying accent and a dripping disdain for the provincialism of American philharmonic boards. He was perfect, one of those Europeans brought in by city elites in the middle of the century to class up the place, and when he first walked into the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, he thought, “What are all these awful chandeliers hanging about here for? How American!”

Like Salonen, however, Fleischmann turned out to be something of a New Worlder disguised in European hounds-tooth. “The funny thing is,” says Gehry, “that for all his guff, Ernest is really a pussycat. He had a dream—that by some miracle, classical music would transcend its museumlike character and become something that’s contemporary and open and inviting to the community. He truly believed it. He wanted an infinitely democratic hall where everyone was equal—no balconies.” Ten years after being hired, Fleischmann started dreaming of a hall to replace the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. He had visited the Berlin Philharmonie, which is called a vineyard hall: In contrast to the typical shoe box design of concert halls, the Philharmonie’s seats are laid out in a circular pattern, folding the audience into close proximity with the orchestra. Fleischmann liked it—the vineyard hall dissolved the class aspects of the shoe box hall’s staggered balconies. He was an autocrat who desired a populist space in Los Angeles, and when Gehry walks through Fleischmann’s dream today, he says, “This is where you see Ernest’s logic revealed, the logic of democracy”

When Salonen arrived at the Philharmonic in 1992, he was assured by Fleischmann that a new hall, standing across 1st Street, would soon be handed to him. Yet by the time Buffy Chandler died in 1997, the entire Disney Hall project had ground to a halt. All that existed was a parking structure that cost $80 million to build. It looked as if Salonen might end up entombed in the old matron’s looming legacy just beneath the gaze of her oil portrait.

Then two things happened. The first occurred when the Philharmonic traveled to Paris for a brief residence at the Theatre du Chatelet. The orchestra had always felt a little unnoticed—a great ensemble in a so-so hall—but that month in Paris it soared under the Chatelet’s premier acoustics, tackling a program of Stravinsky and a Peter Sellars production that led to a long story in the Los Angeles Times by critic Mark Swed. Every member of the Philharmonic’s board read or heard about that piece exalting the orchestra’s sound inside a great hall on a foreign shore. Exactly a year to the day after Swed’s story appeared, Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao opened—built on time and under budget by Europeans for not much more than it cost American contractors to construct a parking structure on Grand Avenue.

“Because Frank’s stuff looks unusual,” says Gehry Partners architect Jim Glymph, “it is often perceived to be unbuildable or unpriceable. He works in a three-dimensional process that is generated in a computer, and in Disney Hall you can see that maybe the technology was seen as a bit too pioneering here. Then it worked in Bilbao.”