Long-awaited Disney Hall opens today

What costs $274 million, and looks like either a steel cactus or a billowy sailing ship?

If you guessed Disney Hall, you're right on target. The new concert hall, designed by Frank Gehry (the man responsible for the love-it-or-hate-it Experience Music Project at the Seattle Center), opens this week in a fanfare of publicity unequalled in the arts since "The Treasures of Tutankhamen" made their climate-controlled journey across the continents back in the 1970s.

The new Disney Hall is staying put in downtown Los Angeles, where it will be the home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It already has been the subject of much breathless prose in the likes of Vanity Fair and Vogue. Both ran major, enraptured features on the hall and on the L.A. Phil's photogenic young conductor, Finnish-born Esa-Pekka Salonen. So did The New Yorker, which recently gave the architecture an unqualified rave (after noting the hall has "already received the kind of adulatory advance press usually reserved for blockbuster movies").

The early years of the Disney Hall project, however, provoked responses that were anything but adulatory. It is sobering to realize that Gehry got the commission -- his first major building in his hometown -- way back in 1988. That's when Walt Disney's widow, Lillian Disney, gave $50 million to launch the hall. Things proceeded at a glacial pace, with groundbreaking in 1992, at which time the estimated cost was $110 million for the 2,265-seat hall in 293,000 square feet of space.

Almost abandoned

By 1995, with Disney Hall cost estimates continuing to rise and many aspects of the design in dispute, fund-raising efforts trickled to a near-halt. Disney family members, other donors and civic leaders all had different ideas about what should happen. The unfinished hall was a major embarrassment in Los Angeles cultural and civic circles.

Finally, in the late 1990s with the stock market on the rise, the project revived again in California's then-booming economy. The opening concerts, beginning today, have long been sold out; the first season is selling well, despite nearly doubled ticket prices from last season (subscriptions now range from $35 to $120 per concert per ticket).

Made of stainless steel, the swooping facade is instantly recognizable as a Gehry design to anyone who has seen pictures of the architect's much-heralded Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. What's inside Disney Hall is, of course, of considerably more interest to concertgoers than the facade, which backers hope will become Los Angeles' equivalent of the Space Needle (in terms of symbolism and tourism).

Concert in the round

Inside the hall, the orchestra will be surrounded by wraparound seating in groups of terraces that are likened to hillside vineyards in most commentaries. Rather than the traditional "shoebox" model that has been the basis for the majority of the world's great concert halls, Gehry and acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota have based their design on that of the 1963 Berlin Philharmonie Hall, an auditorium that has drawn praise (as well as a few brickbats) for its acoustics.

The disadvantage of seating in the round is that the musicians don't sit in the round; their sound is at least partially directional. Most critics, however, agree that Disney Hall's superb acoustics allow full, vibrant resonance.

It's certainly not your grandmother's concert hall. Whether it's a great place for your grandmother's, and great-great-great-grandmother's, repository of great collected symphonic classics (as well as your granddaughter's future world premieres), remains to be heard.


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