My antithetical feelings for the Walt Disney Concert Hall continue, especially after attending a recent concert that included my 15-year-old son Kyle performing on the bassoon. There is nothing like parental pride to cloud one's critical faculties.
Actually, they have been clouded for some time. Since the Hall began to take shape five years ago I have found it a particularly difficult project to comment on - not only because of its design, but also because of its hype and multiplexity of purposes.
The sails and swirls of the stainless steel aside, the hall on a personal level is an international icon for its architect Frank Gehry, and a laurel for local boosters galvanized by philanthropist Eli Broad.
However viewed, its significance cannot be denied. Since the flush of its dedication less than a year ago, the hall has become a symbol of the cultural aspirations of Southern California, another piece of the puzzle in an emerging Downtown, and a critical focal point for the recently launched redevelopment of Grand Avenue.
Then there is the need to take into account the perspective of those who experience the building; whether purposefully attending an event there, and thus having to find a seat and possibly a bathroom, or just driving, walking, living and working nearby.
Also to be considered are the people who perform in and service the building: the musicians, maintenance personnel, ticket takers, ushers or the persnickety person who tells you to put away your camera even at intermission when your son is gathering up his reeds.
All have their needs and priorities, which should be considered when commenting on the building. Generally, I have welcomed the building, which I've described as an arresting ego-encrusted icon. But I also have questioned its excessive cost, contorted spaces and urban design, while trying to be fair and balanced, in respect for both the professionals involved in shaping, styling and serving the hall, as well as for the public.
All pretense of being a critic faded when my youngest progeny performed with the Festival Wind Ensemble as part of an evening program staged by the Idyllwild Arts Foundation. The program that also featured the Festival Choir and Orchestra filled the concert hall with friends and family of the several hundred talented youths from Southern California and beyond who had studied at the foundation's internationally renowned summer program in the San Jacinto mountains.
Kyle was excited and so was his mother, my wife Peggy, older sister Alison, who flew in from New York for the event, and one of his two older brothers, Josef, who happens to be the music critic for his college paper. Also attending was Kyle's much revered bassoon teacher, Sara Banta.
How Kyle found time between his schooling, studying for the SATs, surfing, soccer and ascending social life to take up one of the most demanding musical instruments to play is impressive.
I, too, was excited, and more. I had previously attended concerts in the hall during the course of my commentaries, but now having to meet my family in the lobby and hear my son perform heightened my anxiety and also my awareness of the design.
I was reminded that the lobby does not work particularly well as a welcoming space nor as a place to comfortably meet and mingle. Unlike most great music halls and opera houses, the entry from Grand Avenue is unexceptional, no hint of ceremony, no perspective for a processional. It is rather, sadly, more in the mode of a multiplex movie house where the admission is $8 and not a concert hall with the admission price of $80.
As for the main lobby beyond, there is no focal point where one can easily mark a place to gather. As a result, I spent several long and anxious minutes searching the crowd for the various members of my party. It didn't help that the lobby has no real edge, and drifts off and up, into fragments of spaces on five levels. Circulation seems to have been an afterthought, the interior spaces squeezed to accommodate the exterior shape.
The focus of the hall is the main auditorium, a dramatic curved wood-lined space in a vineyard shape with staggered, wraparound seating that promises a more intimate concert experience. Much to my pleasure that's what I found in previous visits when I moved around the auditorium to experience different views and listening posts, and a few seats with limited legroom.
At last Sunday's concert, I was seated in the third row orchestra (CC), which I expected to be a marvelous location from which to view and hear Kyle play. But my seat (166) and my wife's next to me was off to the far left and had a limited view of the ensemble and none of our son. The others in my party could glimpse him, if they leaned to the right.
We were devastated, and near panic, and did what most other parents would do in such dire circumstances, which was to ignore the ushers and determinedly scramble to command two vacant seats two rows up in the center of the orchestra. With furtive glances to the left and right, we settled in with the fervent hope that the seats' rightful occupants would not show up, at least not during the first two offerings on the program in which Kyle was performing.
They didn't, and we saw Kyle and Kyle saw us. Beaming smiles were exchanged, and we settled into our seized seats and watched and listened with parental pride.
Incidentally, the acoustics were excellent, allowing us and the capacity audience to enjoy a stirring performance that included Aaron Copland's memorable "Appalachian Spring."
Kyle later said that the acoustics necessitated some adjustments by him and the ensemble. Unlike orchestral experiences in other halls in which he has played, he was only able to hear the audience instead of his fellow musicians.
Still, that was minor compared to the thrill of performing in clearly a singular space before an obviously appreciative audience that included his family and teacher. It was also a thrill for me, and a reminder of the importance design makes in shaping experiences.
Kaplan is an Emmy Award-winning reporter for FOX 11 News and the author of L.A. Lost and Found.
page 3, 8/30/04
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