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Walt Disney Concert Hall Turns 10

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Walt Disney Concert Hall
Walt Disney Concert Hall | Photo: Adam Latham.

The year was 1987, the check was for $50 million, its signator, Lillian Disney. And with that began a saga -- the building of Walt Disney Concert Hall -- that would put Los Angeles on the cultural map, much to the envy of other arts meccas, including New York City, whose Carnegie Hall had been the apotheosis of pristine sound since 1891.

Of course, little did anyone know that it would be 16 years before the magnificent, Frank Gehry-designed steel structure (we're talking more than 22 million pounds of the stuff), opened its fabulous doors. But on that night, October 23, 2003, with music director Esa-Pekka Salonen leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Master Chorale (the Hall's second resident company, celebrating its 50th anniversary this season), in the first of three gala concerts, the orchestra took center stage.

Okay, both the Hall and the Philharmonic triumphed, with antiphonal sounds originating from various nooks and crannies throughout the evening, including the loft surrounding the magnificent organ, where concertmaster Martin Chalifour opened the concert by bowing some Bach. (Designed by Gehry with sound design by Manuel Rosales, the organ, with its 6,125 pipes -- resembling French fries, pick-up sticks or whatever flights of fancy one's imagination takes -- is dazzling.)

By all accounts of that night -- and there were many, as hundreds of journalists from around the globe descended upon the 2, 265-seat venue to file their reports -- when Salonen brought down his baton at the end of Stravinsky's electrifying "The Rite of Spring," a star, Walt Disney Concert Hall, was born, and downtown Los Angeles would never be the same.

© Gil Garcetti 2001
© Gil Garcetti 2001

But getting there, as mentioned, was quite the journey. Ground was initially broken (initially being the operative word), on December 10, 1992, when an array of politicians, arts bigwigs and Diane Disney Miller took shovels to dirt, signaling the beginning of construction for a seven-level parking structure that would ultimately yield 2,188 parking spaces.

Before that groundbreaking, though, various and sundry things happened that had consequences for the Hall. Of course, Santa Monica resident Gehry, whose work, unfathomably, does not dot his adopted city (he was born in Toronto), had been selected to design the theater in 1988, ultimately besting a field of 72 international competitors.

There had also been plans for a 5-star hotel and the Champs-Ã?lysée-fication of Grand Avenue, with Disney Hall serving as a kind of anchor. Although the hotel idea was ultimately scrapped, the easy-access parking lot at the corner of Olive and First Streets is still operating. But parking lots aside, it was 1991 when the Pritzker Prize-winning Gehry submitted his design for the Hall.

Resembling a majestic seagoing vessel, its sails billowing in the wind, the 367,000-square-foot venue was to be a cluster of eccentric shapes, with undulating walls in a variety of curves, clad in off-white limestone. The radical design, not surprisingly, drew mixed reactions: From being dubbed "post-earthquake architecture" and a shoe box left out in the rain, to an undisputed masterpiece, it set tongues a-wagging.

It was also taking on a far different look than Lillian Disney must have originally envisioned. Partial to gardens -- but seeking a hall with superior acoustics -- Disney wanted the building to be a tribute to her classical music-loving husband Walt, who died in 1966 at age 65. No Mouse House on the corner of First and Grand, the Hall, instead, would be unlike any other piece of architecture ever to grace a Los Angeles street.

If it ever got built, that is, as construction stalled for the brunt of the 1990s: The 1992 riots, a violent response to the Rodney King verdict, were followed in 1994 by the Northridge quake. Two years later, spiraling costs (the original estimate of $110 million mushroomed to $284 million, which now actually seems like a bargain), poor management, and the continued disagreements over Gehry's design, not to mention California's tanking economy, all made for a bleak prognosis, with that gaping hole of a parking lot an all-too visible reminder.

By 1996, philanthropist/billionaire, Eli Broad, thought the project was dead. In fact, with the County called upon to start paying off its bonds, numerous people were ready to pull the plug. But county supervisor/arts aficionado, Zev Yaroslavsky, wouldn't have it, declaring there would never be a chance to build another concert hall. Even Salonen, who had begun his tenure as L.A. Phil music director in 1992, thought the Hall was doomed.

Enter, then, a handful of L.A.'s political and cultural movers and shakers, including then-Mayor Richard Riordan. Fundraising efforts were ratcheted up, with Broad donating $5 million, which was matched by Riordan and his wife Nancy. The Disney foundation eventually gave another $25 million, with Walt's nephew, Roy Disney, and his wife Patty, bequeathing $5 million. Add to this another $30 million, half of which was given by supermarket mogul Ron Burkle, the other half ponied up by the State of California, and the Symphony in Steel (also the name of a book of photographs by Gary Leonard), was finally on its way to being built.

As construction began anew in 1999 with a second groundbreaking, light at the end of this convoluted, albeit magnificent tunnel, was visible. It also didn't hurt that Gehry's 1997 Bilbao Guggenheim, which injected that sleepy port town with both cache and a booming tourist industry, served as testing ground for Gehry, allowing the starchitect to tinker with materials and design.

The Hall, rising from the ashes like a phoenix, would become a downtown destination, even while under construction. International theater and opera director Peter Sellars proclaimed, "You won't be able to just walk by it. You'll have to stop and look."

Sure, it would jut out for the world to see. And that it had no architectural relationship to its Music Center neighbor, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, built in 1964 as a tribute to Greek style, mattered not. (The other theaters making up the Center are the Mark Taper Forum and the Ahmanson Theater.)

What Gehry had wrought was something altogether different. Frank Gehry wanted Disney Hall to be a "living room for Los Angeles," at the same time envisioning his architecture as frozen music. With Yas­uhisa Toyota as acoustician, the Hall would not only live up to everyone's dreams -- it would surpass them.

Gil Garcetti, who served as Los Angeles County's 40th District Attorney for two terms, from 1992 until 2000, remembers being thrilled at the possibilities of the Gehry-designed building. He also had no idea that it would spark a second career -- professional photographer -- with the edifice a launching pad for two books, "Iron, Erecting the Walt Disney Concert Hall" (2002) and "Frozen Music" (2003).

Walt Disney Concert Hall | Photo: Adam Latham
Walt Disney Concert Hall | Photo: Adam Latham

Recalls Garcetti: "It was June, 2001, and I was driving by the Hall. I see an ironworker on all fours and I stopped to take some photos. I came back the next day and took more. I wanted to get on the site and wondered how to do this."

Garcetti says he called Mortenson Construction, who told him to, "go fly a kite" -- that they would only let the L.A. Times take photos. "I really wanted to take pictures of the raw steel and the ironworkers," adds Garcetti, "so I called the union, and the first thing they said was, 'We'll send you $1,000 bucks.' They thought I was running for office. When I told them what I wanted they said they would give me access and I would give them photographs."

Garcetti hadn't planned on doing a book, but the 72-year old erstwhile politician explains that one of the workers told him he needed to. "I asked, 'Why?' He said, 'This is going to be an iconic building, but everyone would be thanking Frank Gehry and nobody would be thanking us.' He was right. As my dad had been a barber and my mother a meatpacker, this hit home. I decided if the photos were good enough, we'll do it."

The photos, in fact, were good enough, with Gehry writing a foreword to "Iron."

As to how Garcetti got some of those shots, he said he often found himself in precarious positions. "I was walking around the raw beams, without anything under me. They gave me a hardhat and no safety equipment," he says with a chuckle. "I'd never done anything like that before and it certainly wasn't the smartest thing."

Garcetti says he shot more than 1,000 pictures in two and a half years for both books, with about 100 photos selected for each. "Frozen Music," issued in a limited edition of 2,000 (since sold out), features photos of the Hall's steel skin, and were reproduced on special paper removable for framing. The books have also garnered impressive reviews, and photos from each are currently on view at the Colburn School of Music through May, 2014.

Garcetti was also on hand to photograph the Hall's opening a decade ago -- but not from inside the venue. "I was with Jodie Foster, and we were hanging out on the rooftop of the county courthouse. I had a telephoto and wide-angle lens. She was doing commentary for PBS."

© Gil Garcetti 2001
© Gil Garcetti 2001

Garcetti loves what Disney Hall has done for him -- and for the city of Los Angeles. "People come from all over the world just to see this building. It gave a lift to the Philharmonic and provided a venue we didn't have before. It's also given an opportunity for the orchestra to try new things.

"Going back to the structure itself," adds Garcetti, "people feel good looking at it. They feel great being inside it. I also think -- and I can't prove this -- but it's had a tremendous effect on kids who are able to go there and hear and see for themselves, what music can do for your soul and how it enriches you as a person."

Indeed. The list of glorious musical events held at the Hall over the last decade is a long one, but some of the more memorable ones include the "Tristan Project," a 2004 boundary-pushing production of Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde," done in collaboration with Salonen, video artist Bill Viola and director Sellars. A two-week 2006 Minimalist Jukebox Festival, helmed by composer John Adams, with music by, among others, Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass, proved so popular that another iteration returns next spring. And speaking of Riley, the composer of "In C," he rocked the organ in a 2009 performance that began around midnight and lasted for several hours.

And would the L.A. Phil have snagged Gustavo Dudamel if the Hall hadn't been built? A moot point now, but kudos must go to Salonen and L.A. Phil President and CEO, Deborah Borda, who both recognized the 23-year old Venezuelan's talent and arranged for him to make his U.S. debut with the L.A. Phil in 2005 at the Hollywood Bowl.

Dudamel, who became music director of the orchestra in 2009, is still a superstar at 32. He has not only helped raise the Philharmonic's profile, but has expanded the ensemble in a number of other ways: He named minimalist guru, John Adams, Creative Chair; he began programming operas, including the Mozart/Da Ponte trilogy, with pedigreed sets and costume designers, the third of which, "Cosi fan tutte," will be presented next spring.

Also under Dudamel's leadership: The orchestra has expanded its outreach through various projects, notably Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA), which is influenced by Venezuela's widely successful El Sistema, the music education program that nurtured Dudamel.

The highs continue to be highs, including the numerous presentations at REDCAT (Roy and Edna Disney CalArts Theater), an extension of CalArts. An afterthought to the Hall, but a propitious one, this 250-seat black box space on the corner of Second and Hope Streets has been home to a vast array of performances, exhibitions, screenings and literary events. Such fare has included Elevator Repair Service's 2012 presentation of "Gatz," the New York-based troupe's thrilling 8-hour staged reading of, "The Great Gatsby."

REDCAT's artistic director, Mark Murphy, has been on board since the Hall's opening, programming important national and international series (Radar L.A. just wrapped its second contemporary theater festival), as well as festivals that include NOW (New Original Works), a boon to local choreographers.

What began with a check from Lillian Disney and opened with great fanfare a decade ago, Walt Disney Concert Hall remains a symbol of all that is good about this city.

And while John Cage's iconic "4'33" will be among the works performed when Dudamel ascends the podium for a season-opening gala concert on September 30 (for those who don't know the Cage work, nary a note of music is played during those four minutes and thirty-three seconds, leaving the ambient sounds of the Hall to provide the soundscape), this Los Angeles living room will once again have the eyes -- and ears -- of the cultural world upon it.

As Friedrich Nietzsche once said, "Without music, life would be a mistake."

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