Three Nights of Disney Gala, In L.A.’s Astonishing Eruption

Los Angeles. Nothing is more tedious than complaining about the nightly traffic jams that slow this car-addled megalopolis to a crawl between 4 and 8 p.m. But the gridlock along the east/west arteries that I experienced while trying to get from Santa Monica to downtown for the opening-night gala of the new Walt Disney Concert Hall was truly apocalyptic. When I finally made it to the drop-off point and dashed toward my seat-only to be confronted by closed doors and an usher who said that I had to cool my heels until the intermission-I muttered to myself with an Easterner’s bitterness, “Ah, the good life in L.A.!”

For all the sunshine and bougainvillea, it doesn’t come easy out here. The best proof is the arrival of Frank Gehry’s astonishing architectural eruption on Grand Avenue, an event that has had everyone, from the city’s movers and shakers to the valet parkers, sounding like extras in E.T. “How is it?” a bartender in the Peninsula Hotel asked me when he spotted a program for the gala under my arm. When I told him, everyone around me stopped talking to listen.

But Disney Hall did not crash-land from outer space-or even emerge fully formed from the wizardly workshop of Mr. Gehry. Unlike the last combustion of high culture and high architecture to snap L.A. out of its narcissistic torpor-the opening of the Getty Center above the San Diego Freeway in 1997-it did not come about through the largesse of one billionaire’s foundation. Although the idea for a new home for the Los Angeles Philharmonic was kick-started by a $50 million gift from a fabulously wealthy widow, Lillian Disney, it went through a cliffhanging process that lasted 16 years and required a community effort by politicians, downtown boosters and countless well-heeled donors to bring off. Even more remarkable is the fact that the project, which ended up costing $272 million, has been driven by a singular-one might say almost reactionary-notion: that a place devoted primarily to the performance of classical music could be the magnet for a new, thriving downtown.

The extent of Disney Hall’s magnetism has yet to be established; for the moment, its aptly named neighborhood-Bunker Hill-remains virtually devoid of restaurants and cafés. Still, the allure of the new hall is considerable. If the flamboyant façade doesn’t attain quite the iconic power of the Sydney Opera House as a city-defining monument (there’s no dramatic vantage point from which to view it whole), its interior radically redefines the experience of concertgoing.

After one enters the hall via a splayed ramp that Fred Astaire would have adored, the shallow lobby space-awkwardly dominated by a sawed-off pillar of Douglas fir-comes as an anticlimax. (“There’s no wow,” I heard a local architect complain.) But Disney Hall’s spirit is about adventure, not grandeur. Unlike conventional halls, which insist on a set of procedures to follow (climb the outside steps; go to the ticket windows; proceed up the right- or left-hand staircase; take your seat in a perfectly straight row), this one is an invitation to roam-to gaze upward at the Piranesi-like skylights, to luxuriate in the carpet, whose floral pattern might be called Palm Springs Gauguin, or to stroll through the terrace garden, which features full-grown California trees transplanted from better neighborhoods. As I pondered one mysteriously defoliated specimen (exhaust fumes from the nearby freeway? Agent Orange?), I overheard a woman saying to her companion, “Martha Stewart was here for a preview, and all she said was, ‘You’re not taking care of your trees!’” To me, the denuded tree, spectral in the night sky against a gleaming backdrop of office and apartment towers, was as magically weird as everything else.

Disney’s theater-in-the-round, which puts the orchestra in the center of the action, has plenty of wow: more ersatz-Gauguin on the seats, a billowing lumberyard of toffee-colored Douglas fir on the ceiling and walls. It has been compared to a galleon, but from my perch in one of the upper balconies, it seemed like an ancient amphitheater in which we, the 2,265-member audience, were witnesses to a ritual bonfire. Under the whip-cracking leadership of the Finnish maestro Esa-Pekka Salonen, the L.A. Philharmonic lit up a conflagration that, for most of the time, was overwhelming.

People in the concert business tell me that it takes about three years for an orchestra and a new hall to settle down acoustically. What I heard at Disney Hall suggests a marriage that is off to a roaring start. Certainly, the hall’s “sound,” as engineered by the celebrated Japanese acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota, is warm, clear and natural. As the Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg told me during an intermission, “The acoustic is like a beautiful old lady-it’s just there.” This old lady is almost alarmingly alive. Every snap, crackle and pop was exposed-including every thudding fall of the booklet-sized program from a patron’s lap. And plainly, it’s a hall with a Job-like capacity to handle any decibel level a symphony orchestra might aspire to.

The 45-year-old Mr. Salonen-whose buoyancy onstage suggests a man 20 years younger-created inaugural programs designed to avoid the obligatory clichés of Mahler and Beethoven and to underscore the themes of his trailblazing tenure as the Philharmonic’s music director. (This is his 12th season.) I can’t report on the impact of the opening night’s first half, which was billed as “Sonic L.A.” and was conceived to highlight the full range of Mr. Toyota’s handiwork. (After Dianne Reeves’ bluesy rendition of the National Anthem, the program offered bits and pieces by Bach, Gabrieli, Ives, Ligeti and Mozart. “Interesting but scrappy” was the verdict of several veterans of such occasions.) After the intermission came a Salonen specialty, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring . I think that even the city’s most celebrated expatriate composer would have been amazed by the power and accuracy of the playing-and tickled to see how his great shocker of 1913 had evolved into a sure-fire party piece.

The second night (“Living L.A.”) opened with “L.A. Variations,” a 1996 work in which Mr. Salonen, who is also a fine composer, paid homage to the zitzy contrasts of his adopted hometown, the fearless virtuosity of his players and-by inference-the take-no-prisoners atonality of the city’s other expat musical demigod, Arnold Schoenberg. A bit too strenuously puckish, I thought-though the closing, Straussian tweak of the piccolo against the curling scale of the concertmaster’s violin was delicious. What followed gave no rest to the weary. With Yo-Yo Ma in the soloist’s chair, Lutoslawski’s Cello Concerto of 1970 took the form’s traditional tug-of-war between the individual and the crowd to new, savage heights.

Relief of sorts came after the intermission with the world premiere of John Adams’ “The Dharma at Big Sur,” an evocation of California’s most spectacular stretch of coast in the form of an ardent vocalise for electric violin (vigorously played by Tracy Silverman), set against a brooding oceanic drone. I had the feeling that there was less here than met the ear, but as usual, Mr. Adams delivered-in this case, a spacious deck from which to view the whales. The program ended with another of Mr. Salonen’s splashy specialties, Sensemayá , a work from 1937-38 by the Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas that gave a welcome nod to the city’s essential, if not heavily represented, Hispanic population. When, I thought, are these guys going to relax?

That they did the following night during “Soundstage L.A,” a celebration of Hollywood film music chosen by the composer John Williams. The array of titles alone set the heart racing- King Kong , The Adventures of Robin Hood , Wuthering Heights , Madame Bovary , The Magnificent Seven , Close Encounters of the Third Kind , Planet of the Apes , Vertigo , On Dangerous Ground . And the presence of Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and Catherine Zeta-Jones reading intros off a teleprompter lent an Oscarish touch of glamour.

All that paled once the music swelled. Suddenly, thanks to the splendid imaginations of those shameless studio composers-Mr. Williams, Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Miklos Rosza, Alfred Newman, Bernard Herrmann, Elmer Bernstein and Jerry Goldsmith-we were on top of the Empire State Building with the gigantic ape, in Sherwood Forest with Errol Flynn, up in that terrifying tower with James Stewart and Kim Novak. When John Williams, who shared the conducting chores with Mr. Salonen, launched into the sophisticated schmaltz of Newman’s score for Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier out on Emily Brontë’s moor, I realized that this hall had still another side to its personality-a gift for romance. With music like this filling the air, I thought, here was a place you could fall in love.