Monday, May 4, 2009

LA Philharmonic @ Walt Disney Concert Hall

LOS ANGELES, May 3 -Why isn't the Walt Disney Concert Hall hated? It squats weirdly over Bunker Hill, a grand symbol of conspicuous consumption for the city's effete elite. The vast fortune it cost to build the thing is mirrored by the smaller fortune it must cost to heat and cool the thing's innards. And then there's the cost of cooling the thing's outards. After its 2003 opening, neighbors complained that their condos were overheating from the reflection. Pedestrians had to step around 140 degree "hot spots" on the sidewalk. Also, it looks unsafe. In a quake, is a building designed to look like Jello cubes sturdier or more deadly than a regular cube?

Visiting the hall for a recent Sunday concert, I found the theater interior disappointingly symmetrical. For most people, the inside of such a building would be a revelation. But most people aren't from Albany, NY. In Albany, we have The Egg, a concrete absurdity that squats over the downtown skyline. If you live in Albany and you want to see Boz Skaggs or Russian ballet, you will have to go to The Egg theater. The Egg's interior is furnished with curving concrete and Swiss pearwood veneer. The inside of the Disney Hall is lined with Douglas Fir and finished with Oak, and similarly lacks sharp edges. For a few scary moments, I thought I might round a corner and find myself back in upstate NY. Eventually we reached our seats, directly behind and above the stage, facing out towards 90% of the crowd. I scanned for celebrities in the multi-tiered audience facing me, but Philharmonic concerts apparently don't have the draw of Lakers games.

Below us, a kettle drum player laid his sticks out like surgical instruments. The lineup featured one concerto each by Kodály and Liszt, and then a symphony by Dvořák. I only vaguely recognized one of those names, although I'd come prepared by eight minutes on Wikipedia. "Quite a coincidence," I said to Laszlo - my sole Hungarian friend, and the afternoon's benefactor - "Two of the three composers being Hungarian and all." He seemed amused and a little disturbed that I knew all about Kodály; the background in ethnomusicology, the death in 1967, the correct name pronunciation.

"How do you know this name?" Laszlo demanded.

"Please," I said disinterestedly as the concert started. "You're talking to a product of the American public school system. We are all quite familiar with the works of Zoltán Kodály"

The Hall made good on its reputation for world class sonics. During "Concerto For Orchestra" I watched each of the 80+ ensemble members and understood that I could distinguish every instrument. Towards the end of the piece, a thin man sitting towards the back of the orchestra, meaning closest to me, rose to ding the triangle with perfect clarity. It was like listening to a virgin slab of vinyl, with coughs from the audience substituting for scratches and pops. The hall's reverberation time drops by a fifth of a second when filled with soft human meat, so our presence made the concert just a bit better.

My wife passed me a note: Imagine David Belle doing parkour here. Just as classical music conjures all the imagery of Hollywood - all the gliding starships and desert landscapes John Williams has ruined my generation with - so did the concert hall itself evoke its own cinematic treatments. I tried to remember what films I'd seen with orchestra scenes, and all I could think of was the wonderful opening of "Red Dragon" where Anthony Hopkins winces slightly at a sour note, dooming the flutist. Then I tried to remember any other classical concerts I'd attended, coming up blank. All my Egg memories are of plays and musicals and live comedy. Why were there so many musicals and live comedies in my childhood?

At intermission we all stood out in the northwest courtyard, a sunny spot overlooking the nearby condo complex where residents had gotten roasted in their own apartments by the building's glint. Up close, the building's titanium "skin" resembled the complexion of the St. Louis Arch without any of the horrific vertigo. A lot of people looked very rich.

The second act featured a cover of Dvořák's "Symphony No. 8 In G Major, Op. 88". I wasn't able to conjure any spaceships to this one. Guest conductor Hans Graf furiously wiggled his baton like a man with something to prove. Which, more or less, is what he was. Two weeks earlier, beloved outgoing LAPO conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen reportedly received a 12-minute standing ovation, a burst of sustained Caucasian superjoy approaching performance art. Frankly, the odds were against Graf getting such a reception at the end of this show.

After a while I got sleepy. Then I got really sleepy. I rested my eyes, thinking of Bugs and Elmer in the opera house, and Mickey Mouse in "Fantasia", and the "Peter And The Wolf" cartoon I was made to watch relentlessly all throughout grade school. As I drifted off to slumberland in my seat, I felt a sadness. The closest I would come to knowing anything about classical music was through the cartoons of the 20th century. I would probably never know more about classical than I did now. In my own passive way, I was contributing to the increasing aggregate dumbness of the human race. Then I was gone.