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Commentary: Happy 95th birthday, Frank Gehry. Let's give you the Disney Hall you really wanted

Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

LOS ANGELES — Over the last two decades, Walt Disney Concert Hall has blazed cultural trails like no place else. We can rightfully talk about the L.A. Philharmonic before and after Frank Gehry built it a hypnotizing new home. We can divide downtown L.A. into pre- and post-Disney. We can go so far as to distinguish orchestral life, not only in L.A. but everywhere, in the same way.

Gehry turns 95 on Wednesday, and the L.A. Phil season, which began with a gala led by Gustavo Dudamel celebrating the architect, has, in ongoing tributes to the hall and in just doing its thing for these nearly five months, readily revealed, week after week, all that Disney is. And, alas, all that Disney inexcusably isn't. At least not yet. But the best of Disney first.

Building Disney was a long, laborious, contentious, financially dicey process, one for which we've never had a full or convincing account. I've never gotten straight answers about who did what to whom and when.

In 1987, Ernest Fleischmann, at the time the transformative head of the L.A. Phil, enticed Lillian Disney to give $50 million for a concert hall to be built in honor of her late husband, Walt, as an addition to the Music Center. Fleischmann, who had once hailed the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, built for the L.A. Phil in 1964 as an acoustic wonder, eventually pronounced it unworthy. It still is, but that's another story.

Presumably, Fleischmann assured Lillian Disney that this generous sum would be sufficient for the new hall, knowing full well that much more would be needed (ultimately, more like $274 million). Although Fleischmann and Gehry were close friends, Gehry was viewed as far too radical for the conservative classical music establishment, which feared chain-link fences and whatnot. One Music Center board member proposed that the original blueprints for the Chandler be dug up and that they just build "the same damn thing" across the street.

A competition was arranged. Gehry's model, which was exciting but far more conventional than the masterpiece he ultimately designed, was so superior to the others, especially in its welcoming feeling, that even Gehry's detractors begrudgingly approved. The four other models, all by distinguished architects, were suspiciously clueless.

 

I never could get Fleischmann, or anyone else close to the competition, to explain why. Did Fleischmann and others on the jury know all along that Gehry was exactly what the orchestra and the city needed and that the only way to get it was to rig the competition by misleading the other architects? All insisted it was fair. Until evidence proves otherwise, I'm sticking with Fleischmann's visionary flare eclipsing committee-compromised fair.

It would take 16 years to build Disney. Fundraising stalled repeatedly. Gehry's detractors (including some leading voices at the The Times) had a field day. The Music Center did not display much enthusiasm.

In the early 1990s, the L.A. riots, the Northridge earthquake and a recession took further wind out of the new hall's prospective sails. When I arrived at The Times in spring 1996, everyone told me that the hall was moribund. The county, which owns the Music Center and the land on which Disney sits, had built only the parking lot. The county's supervisors, with the exception of Zev Yaroslavsky, were ready to pull the plug.

But Fleischmann tenaciously hung on. Much later, Esa-Pekka Salonen, then-music director, confessed to me that he had offered his resignation to Fleischmann, in part over his disappointment of the hall's seeming failure and figuring that maybe another conductor could do more. There was also considerable disgruntlement among board members and patrons over Salonen's advocacy of new music, despite the fact that he was attracting a younger audience and was increasingly seen as a vital new voice in classical music.

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