Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 6, 2010

Sights and Sounds Downtown

Last night we went to the first of our 2010-11 subscription series of concerts at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Again this year we’ve remained with our 4-concert “Baroque Variations” series, which always offers an excellent variety of chamber music ensembles playing music from across the baroque era and related themes.

Vintage Transportation

We hit one of those cosmic convergences that sometimes descend upon the metropolis and made it from our door to the Disney Hall parking garage (got a spot on the Goofy Level) in 45 minutes, leaving us an hour ’til showtime (well, 1:06, actually — concerts always seem to start at 8:06). Since it was a glorious, balmy night, we walked south on Grand, past the Colburn School, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA — it’s a rule that all modern art museums have acronyms) and then turned left through a plaza to Angel’s Flight. Angel’s Flight is the now-restored funicular that descends from where we were standing on Bunker Hill down to the lower level of downtown. If you missed my recent article that explains more about it with some additional photos, CLICK HERE.

Angels Flight Brad Nixon 3449 (640x480)

The Counselor had never ridden, so we paid our 25 cents apiece (I bought, since I spare no expense on dates) to ride down. We had to wait, though. Part of what I’d guess you’d call the charm of living in L.A. is that you’re constantly bumping into film shoots (unless you’re stuck in traffic for 6 hours waiting for them to blow up something on the freeway). A film crew was swarming around the place shooting footage of the Angel’s Flight cars going up and down the track. There was a computer-controlled camera on top of a big boom, one of the cars had lights inside it so that it had a nice interior glow, and there was a pause at the end of each run while they reset to roll film again (although obviously from the size of the camera up on that boom, they were not shooting film: it was digital, but we have yet to adapt to saying “roll digits”). In the photo above, the camera would be located to the left and below the car at the top.

The Making Streets Look Like it Just Rained Department was spraying water on that parking garage wall you see to the right in the picture and wetting down the sidewalk and street at the bottom (actually, they do that to even out blotchy-looking surfaces and make them reflect more light). Eventually our car slid down the track, passed the upcoming car, and then came to a stop at the bottom. Our plan was to ride straight back up. A few other travelers got onto our car there at the bottom, including one of the film crew members. She said they were shooting a scene from an upcoming Muppet Movie (The Muppets Do Sin City? Noir Muppets?), so at least we know what movie to rent to see “our” scene!

To Mr. Gehry’s Disney Hall 

At the top we paid the other 50 cents for the second trip (I had to borrow those two quarters from The Counselor, having blown all the dough I’d set aside for this date) and walked off at the same time as a man who was on his way to a dance performance at the Ahmanson Theater, just up the street from Walt Disney Concert Hall. He lives downtown and goes to events up in the music district every night, so he’s a regular Angel’s Flight rider. He seemed to be well-versed in the dance world, and said he’d been a dancer for 14 years, had held a variety of  posts in the arts world, and now is starting a dance school for young people. Whether he’s the real deal or not, it’s impossible to say, but you have to admire someone who refers to Mikhail Baryshnikov as “Mischa!”

We got to our seats in the Fantasyland Section (big teacups, but they don’t spin) still in good time. The performance was the by Venice Baroque Orchestra, with the violinist, Robert McDuffie. We were unfamiliar with Mr. McDuffie, and he was a wonderful revelation, and full of fire. This was our second or third time to hear the Venice Baroque (who are funded by the city of Treviso, go figure), and they have a big repertoire that ranges all over the place, which they play on antique instruments in that funny holding-the-stick-and-not-the-frog way that all those ancient-music dudes favor. Mr. McDuffie held his violin the traditional way, for which I don’t blame him, since he had to stay out in front of the ensemble with one little wooden box made in 1735 (the Guarneri del Gesu “Ladenburg” if you’re keeping track of violins) with four measly little strings and needed all the advantage he could get. I don’t know why some of these cats can’t afford a new instrument.

The program was two extremes: Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons in the first half, followed by a work McDuffie commissioned from Philip Glass to complement Vivaldi: “The American Four Seasons.” There’s not much I should try to say about the first part of the program, the most-recorded piece of music in the known universe played by a troupe of masters, but it was envigorating. I’ll just comment once again that the acoustics of Disney Hall seem to my amateur ear to be about as good as can be accomplished by anyone. One could hear even the lute clearly, particularly in the opening to the Largo of the “Winter” section, when it solos – astounding to hear that music live out in a giant space like that! (I am glad to have something positive to say about the Disney, since nearly a year ago I did make some comments criticizing the public spaces of the joint that surround the concert space: CLICK HERE.)

Fun and Frolic with Philip Glass

Well, then we girded our loins for Mr. Glass’ work. I mean, you just never know what you’re going to get, do you? We were encouraged by the program notes, which indicated that Mr. McDuffie’s commission to Mr. Glass was for something that had a “kick-ass rock and roll ending.” That seemed encouraging. The team took the field for this second half with a few lineup changes: no lute and the harpsichord replaced by a Yamaha synthesizer (which still stuck to mainly harpsichord-like themes). The cellists had put the spikes on their instruments, rather than holding them with their calves, indicating some vigorous playing to come.

Friends, this was the listenable Philip Glass, the vibrant, sonorous Philip Glass: even, as The Counselor put it, the rollicking Philip Glass. The piece was a superb counterpoint to Vivaldi’s. I won’t attempt any sort of detailed description here, since some regular readers are genuine musicians. There were the usual Glassian repetitions and patterns, but they were endlessly fascinating. I encourage you to look up the recording by Mr. McDuffie and the London Philharmonic if you have always wanted to find some Philip Glass you could enjoy. It didn’t even need pictures as was the case with Koyaanisqatsi. If you go to that Amazon link, at least play the brief samples. The sample of the last movement will give you a good sense of the howling, growling power of that old fiddle that Mr. McDuffie plays. Awesome.

You never know what you’ll learn if you keep your ears open.

Note: Angels Flight ceased operation in 2013. As of April 2017, the city has promised to have it working by Labor Day (September) 2017. Check here for updates.

© Brad Nixon 2010, 2017



  1. Baroque music, Disney, Muppets and even a Mad Magazine reference – nice!


    • Few now remember the Making Streets Look Like it Just Rained Dept., and I was counting on you!


  2. “parking on the Goofy level” just doesn’t sound safe…I hope you retrieved your automobile satisfactorily.


  3. An excellent feature, but, honestly, did you just write this so you could work a theme around the word “funicular”?

    And to think Cincinnati once had five of them.

    Tempus Fugit.


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