Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 12, 2009

Mr. Gehry, Tear Down This Hall!

That title’s misleading, but I’ve been studying the local television news long enough to know that you don’t get anywhere with mere statements of fact.

We attended a concert by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra at Disney Hall (officially, Walt Disney Concert Hall) last night. This is not a music review. I might get through one sentence or, if I were cagey, two, before I’d be hooted off the stage as an imposter. We enjoyed the concert, we heard a rollicking performance of Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” played for all the camp the orchestra and their chorus could extract from it, though they did allow Dido, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, to give “Dido’s Lament” all it was worth without stepping on it. As an opera amateur and fan of the baroque period, the best I can do is to advise you that if you are taken captive by music terrorists and forced to listen to baroque opera, request “Dido and Aeneas.” Great tunes, and it’s English, so after the 50th or 60th repetition in your dank cell, you can sing along.

Disney Hall is one of the symbols of the New Downtown LA, although it’s up on that hill there a little remote from the core of downtown. It’s also a landmark design by the architect Frank Gehry, in his trademark warped metallic panels mode of recent years. It’s a stunning building and worth seeing when you’re in Los Angeles (warning: if you take the tour of the place, you may not get to see the performance space, just the common areas, because there’s almost always rehearsal or something in the auditorium). The performance space is remarkable. I’m not here to go into the details, you can find photos online, but having the performers surrounded by the audience is unusual, and everyone has to love the radical design for the hall’s organ.

What’s really remarkable about this space are the acoustics. Lots has been written about this subject, about how Gehry designed the building from the ground up working with acoustic engineers to get it right. And it is a great place to hear music.

What bothers me about the place is that everything else inside seems so ho-hum. If you’ve never been to the place, you can tell just from looking at it that there must be some pretty wacky angles to the space (of course, those curving panels are pure exterior and NOT structural in terms of forming the space, which is a steel framework that doesn’t conform to the panel surfaces). But at the intermission, audiences exit out onto any of their 4 different levels into some nicely-carpeted, um, well, not hallways, but not really very interesting spaces. There’s not much room for movement. In several places, pillars block the walkway from stairs to auditorium, and the main promenade is always a mob scene for busy performance intermissions, and you wonder why you’re pressing through this crowd, since there’s really nothing of interest at either end, just the chance to walk from here to there before you walk back to your seat.

Okay, so it’s not a very scintillating space, but you’re only out there for ten minutes, and if you’re in line to get a drink at the bar, you’re not noticing anyway. The farther away from the auditorium you go, the worse the interior of the place gets. If you, heaven forbid, do not have a lifestyle which allows you to leave work early enough to go grab some dinner before the performance, you may have to eat at the Disney Hall facility in the lowest level of the joint, but try to avoid it. It’s catered by Patina, the same folks who cater the  Hollywood Bowl and, if you’ve had the food at the bowl, you recognize it here (“similar” not “same”, as the Brits would say in the pub). That’s fine, the food is okay, though insanely expensive, of course. What’s disappointing is that the dining space itself is low-ceilinged, dim, harsh, always too chilly (basements of large buildings are always the collecting pools for cold air for the HVAC) and just not very groovy. I think about the great dining area at the Cascade Cafe in the National Gallery of Art, which serves cafeteria style to thousands and thousands of people a day and, while noisy and busy, yes, manages to have some vibe and energy that lets you know you’re in a special place. Here you’re not so much in Disney Hall or Patina as Arby’s.

That dining area’s on the street level. The entrance off the street is one of the least-remarkable entrances for any public building you can think of. Mr. Gehry WANTS you to go up the main steps from the corner intersection, and designed it in a way INTENDED to draw you up that way, but if you do that, you still have to go up to the auditorium or down to the other functions in the building. The street-level entrance on the E. side is utterly dysfunctional, meant only to funnel you to the escalators up to the hall or down to the parking garage. Oh, the gift shops’ there. Good call.

So, Mr. Gehry, I don’t really want you to tear down this hall. You probably had nothing to do with designing the dining space. I’ll let that go. (I couldn’t resist the anniversary of the Wall coming down not to echo President Reagan, anyway) You might’ve given us something more scintillating in the common areas outside the auditorium, though. Still love listening to music there. Remember that we’re the same people all the time we’re in your building, not just when the music’s playing.

One musical note from the performance. The orchestra featured a Theorbo, as do many baroque ensembles. One of the wildest instruments going. Disney is a friendy venue for Theorbo players (theorbists?), because one CAN occasionally hear them. In fact, “Dido and Aeneas” closed with a beautiful little strum of the theorbo after that lovely passage by the orchestra that ends the work. Nice to be able to hear it. It’s a defining aspect of the 17th-century sound — or what I THINK that sound is.

© Brad Nixon 2012, 2017



  1. Once again you have educated me. Although I like classical music and have a bulging collection of classical music CDs, I know little of the instruments and nothing of music composition. Until I read your blog, I had never heard of a “theorbo.” Thanks for the easy link, too.

    Also, I’ve never made the trek to LA to see the Disney Hall. But, I got your clever title right away. (This is the only feeble credit I can take remotely related to understanding something musical.)


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