Sunday, December 9, 2007
Bobofag loves Frank Gehry.
I made my first pilgrimage to the Walt Disney Concert Hall last night, and it provided me as close to religious sensations as a secular gayboy can hope for. I was in no secret way obsessed with Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim museum ever since I first saw pictures of it in the 90's. Whether one viewed it as the climax and pinnacle of the 20th Century's Architectural Narrative or the Beginning of the 21st's (for surely it was one of those two) The Guggenheim was, by any measure, breathtaking. Though I have not had the good fortune to see Bilbao's great new tourist attraction, I had been chomping at the bit to go inside Gehry's Concert Hall in downtown LA, a building that was planned before the Guggenheim and resembles the structure in style and material. At least on the outside. Before last night I knew I loved the Concert Hall's exterior: an elegant and disorienting scrap of tangled silver metal which looks entirely different from any particular vantage point. More enlightening however than playing peek-a-boo Rashomon with the outside is stepping into the Hall itself. My fears that the Concert Hall was just "Guggenheim-lite" were totally unfounded.
The Walt Disney Concert Hall may be the best place in the world to listen to orchestral music, period. (I say "orchestral" because referring to the entirety of symphonic music as "classical" does a disservice to both the music and the listener. The Classical period is a specific time in music history sandwiched between the Baroque and the Romantic. Smothering centuries of musical history with the fusty title of "Classical" can only serve to further keep the fine arts in the realm of the pretentious bourgeoisies, divorced from the life of the proles below. No doubt some would have it that way, but only because their enjoyment of "classical music" is predicated by the sense of superiority they receive by listening to it. I'll have none of it. I will not partake in pushing, though nomenclature alone, average people away from enjoying amazing works of art. The ticket prices do a good enough job of keeping the riff-raff out, no? But I digress...) If Bilbao is anyone near as effective a place to see works of art as The Disney Concert Hall is a place to hear great works of music it would have to be a gallery in competition with the Louvre and MOMA.
The first thing that strikes you about the room is it's warmth; light, smooth wood is everywhere and the fabric pattern on the seats is floral and decorative-tres Californian too. The orchestra is seated in what feels like the rooms center, with audience all around. In actuality it's probably about a fourth closer to the "back" wall with more audience facing the conductors back than his face-as it should be. The ceiling is devoid of sharp angles, the whole space above you curves and undulates-it looks like it's morphing. The effect is perfect and conceptual too; after all, what is music but waves? Behind the orchestra is a massive organ with pipes that spit out in gold. This is surrounded by large jumbled wood planks which, I couldn't help but notice, resemble oversize French Fries. For me, the only other piece of architecture that has this same burst of beauty and composition is the stained glass window behind the altar of St. Peter's in Rome. Whether or not these decorative elements were chosen for acoustic purposes I know not. I do know that the sound of the orchestra in this room was unparalleled in my experience. While the expression that "one could hear a pin drop" is a cliche, Gehry's masterwork gives it meaning. (Sadly, along with the subtleties of Schumann, every cough from the preponderantly geriatric crowd is equally amplified.) The program I saw last night had four works by Wagner, Beethoven, Dvorak and Strauss, respectively. The first and last were my favorite, (Strauss' way with a waltz is unique in emotional depth) but all sounded impeccable.
Most concert halls have the power to make an everyman feel like an aristocrat but Gehry's work here makes the aristocrat feel like an everyman. Such is the egalitarian and unpretentious (though hardly unambitious) design of the Disney Concert Hall. It is a sort of Stoddard Temple brought to life and updated for the 21st century. A secular cathedral built to exalt not the God's but the genius of man; with it's own congregation (subscribers) and tithing system (box office) the analogy is apt. Such is the success of this building that I'll take Frank Gehry over Notre Dame any day.