Posted by: Brad Nixon | February 7, 2010

Mr. Gehry, We Temper Our View

One of my first entries in this blog, “Mr. Gehry, Tear Down This Hall” — written about the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles — has consistently generated some of the most hits from the Internet of all my posts, HERE. That popularity is probably not due to hundreds of Web denizens forwarding links to one another with notes like, “You’ve got to read THIS,” or “Wow, can this guy write!” It’s probably because of the recognizable tags attached to the post, including, “Frank Gehry,” “Los Angeles Philharmonic,” and “Walt Disney Concert Hall.”  Although that article praised the work that Mr. Gehry did in designing the performance space of the building, the overall tone of the piece is critical of the Walt Disney Concert Hall because of its dim environment, oppressively dark atmosphere and generally dingy ambience: more or less the antithesis of what one expects in the bright, palm tree-lined breeziness of Los Angeles. Insofar as ambience goes, the sonically inferior Dorothy Chandler Pavillion, which Gehry’s creation replaced as the home of the L.A. Philharmonic, remains far superior: although I’ve only set foot in Chandler Pavillion once, I retain a memory of it as uplifting, light-filled and airy, versus the dark, compressed corridors one haunts in the space surrounding the Disney auditorium.

Last week we attended the third of our subscription concerts in this season’s “Baroque Variations” series at the Hall. On that Wednesday evening we heard the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra of Toronto perform a piece they’ve been touring for the past year, “The Galileo Project: Music of the Spheres.” I won’t go into the details of this excellent 2-hour program, but you can read more about it HERE.

There were a couple of things about that evening’s performance that underscored what a superior result Mr. Gehry and his acoustician, Yasuhisa Toyota, realized in building the hall.

For one, Tafelmusik’s piece includes some spoken-word performance by an onstage narrator. For the first time in our 5 years of attending concerts at the venue, we heard a human voice amplified from the stage. The presence of amplification in the hall only served to underscore the fact that the other “voices” onstage — violins, violi, celli, a harpsichord — were NOT amplified, and yet those  voices were perfectly discernable, whether  individually — in solos — or en ensemble.

Secondly, in a piece from the early 18th Century composer, Weiss, the “Concerto in C Major for Lute,” we had a work  in which the lute — nothing more than a few strings on a sound box the size of a carry-on bag — has to ring out in a hall half the size of a football stadium and hold its own against the higher-pitched and more penetrating tones of violin, viola, cello, oboe and bassoon (an 18th-Century oboe can ring out over those little stringed instruments like a trumpet, unless skillfully controlled). Despite those limitations, even from our seats some 70 feet away, we could hear distinctly each plinking little note struck by one finger on one string of the lute.

Lucas Harris, Lute

Lucas Harris, Lute

The lute was not intended to be played in a space the size of a blimp hangar (it predates blimps). It is a “chamber” instrument, meant to be played at the very limits of its sonic reach in a ballroom, with perhaps a 14-foot ceiling and no more than fifty or sixty feet on the long axis. Yet Mr. Harris, the Tafelmusik lutenist (see photo, reproduced from LA Phil. program), made himself clearly heard to us in the first balcony. Now, Mr. Harris can only do so much to project his sound as far as the instrument allows. If he were busking at your local grocery store parking lot or farmer’s market, you could walk past him five feet away and never know he was there if you didn’t see him. I can out-blow him with a five-dollar harmonica on any street in any city in the world (hey, maybe a great program for Discovery Channel!).

The fact that we heard each of his notes clearly is obviously a testament to his technique, but also to the work Gehry and Toyota did to shape the performance space in the hall. I can tell you that, from my seat at this performance, as well as others all around the hall I’ve occupied, he succeeded.

Thanks, Mr. Gehry.

Now, sir, could you please address the fact that eating in the dark and dank Disney Concert Hall Cafe feels like having one’s last meal just before the Executioner arrives to lead you to the gallows?

© Brad Nixon 2013, 2017



  1. Judging by the program, it must have been a great performance. Wish I could have seen it


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