Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles

by Jonathan Ambrosino

It is not called ‘Disney Hall’ but distinctly the ‘Walt Disney Concert Hall’, and it has no affiliation with the Disney Corporation, theme parks, Snow White or Cruella de Ville. Rather, the new home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic is a publicly-owned and
-operated entity, in memory to the man who not only created those images but was deeply devoted to music. Even in the jaded land of sun, stars and smog, the Concert Hall is having much the same effect as Walt Disney’s first animated short in 1928: it’s a smash hit.

Why a new symphony hall for Los Angeles? In 1964 Los Angeles created the L.A. County Music Center, a trio of performance spaces. Thought to resemble New York’s Lincoln Center, the Music Center was actually finished two years earlier in 1964. The centrepiece is the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, a 3500-seat proscenium theatre for orchestra and opera. For many years, the idea of a second symphony hall seemed unnecessary. But growing popularity of both Philharmonic and Opera, constant stage changes to accommodate these organizations’ schedules, and growing dissatisfaction with the Chandler’s dry acoustics, gave rise for expansionist plans. The idea took root in 1987 when Lillian Disney (Walt’s widow) gave $50 million toward a new hall. Frank Gehry was selected as architect, eventually unveiling a model that set the public on its ear: love it or hate it, there hadn’t been anything like it.

From the outset, a pipe organ was in the plans. The Toyota Motor Car Corporation of America donated $1 million toward the instrument, and a committee of Cherry Rhodes, Robert Anderson and Michael Barone solicited concept proposals from American and foreign builders. Rosales Organ Builders was selected in 1990 and engaged on a design retainer. The choice came during Manuel Rosales’ first wave of national popularity following the 1987 completion of an eclectic tracker instrument for Trinity Church (now pro-Cathedral) in Portland, Oregon. This 50-stop organ embodied a fresh approach to eclecticism not seen since Charles Fisk’s 1978 organ for House of Hope in Saint Paul’s, Minnesota; in bravado, Rosales’ style was akin to the polish and daring John Brombaugh had brought to organs of 17th-century inspiration. (Fisk had yet to complete their 1992 instrument at Dallas’ Meyerson Symphony Center, which would have proved an interesting competitor to Portland.)

The WDCH façade took about four years to reach a working form. At first, Rosales would propose various dramatic designs, only for Gehry to pose such questions as “Can the front pipes be mounted upside down?” and “How about pipe shades of chain link fence?” Rosales insisted that the façade be composed of proper speaking pipes, and as Gehry grasped how pipes work, he saw a unique opportunity: a signature Gehry shape — a curvilinear object of straight-grained Douglas fir — could just as well be a speaking organ pipe. For variety of form, two wooden ranks would dominate the façade: a 32-foot Violonbasse (midway between violone and open wood) and a 32-foot Contrebasson (a chorus reed of ‘normal’ output). Both sets of pipes would curve and project outward. Vertical tin pipes would form the bass of the Great Prestant, and a set of en-chamade brass and tin trumpets would be known as the “Trompeta de Los Angeles.” Apart from the façade, preliminary plans established the basic locations of three manual departments, and the mounting of a 32-foot Haskellized open wood outside the steel skeleton (at the rear and sides of the case, upside down). Beyond those parameters, tonal design, action and budget remained undefined as the Concert Hall project itself stagnated through the mid-1990s.

That same period saw considerable activity in the development of the American concert hall organ. Casavant broke new ground with their 1987 instrument at Jack Singer Concert Hall, Calgary Centre for Performing Arts, Alberta. However, it was the 1992 Fisk organ in Dallas that re-defined the genre. Fisk have never built a quiet organ, and here was the Big Daddy in a setting where boldness plays. Non-organ crowds ate it up — it’s a mighty fine banjo — while visiting organists saw the future writ large. The instrument continues to have considerable appeal and is brilliantly marketed before the public, demonstrating better than anything since E. Power Biggs and Symphony Hall Boston the potential success for the organ in a concert setting.

Since that time, a number of new or renovated concert hall projects have gone up on the boards. Existing halls in Chicago, Boston and Cleveland have seen renovations; Seattle, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Orange County (California), Jacksonville (Florida), Charlotte and Miami have built or are building new performing arts centers. But amongst all this activity, only two new organs have emerged: Seattle and Chicago (see November/December 1999). Thus the Walt Disney Concert Hall organ — about one-fourth larger than Dallas and almost twice the size of Chicago, in fine orchestral acoustics, and in an architectural setting of immediate renown — holds the potential to chart the next chapter of the American concert organ.

Early on, Rosales became excited by Gehry’s vision. After all, with such an unconventional appearance, the organ could instill widespread curiosity. Moreover, delays in the Hall’s construction between 1993 and 1998 allowed Rosales to develop a relationship with Glatter-Götz Orgelbau, first at Claremont (see ‘Collaborative Spirit,’ May/June 1998) and then a smaller organ for a suburban Los Angeles church. Caspar von Glatter-Götz’s enthusiasm for all things innovative made him a ready supporter of Gehry’s design. When the Concert Hall project re-started in 1998 with renewed urgency, Rosales invited Glatter-Götz to build the organ in a collaborative venture. Not only would it be Glatter-Götz’s largest to date, Gehry’s curved façade pipes would prove an irresistible challenge.

Thus, this organ develops three distinct stories. One surrounds the novel visual design and its immense publicity. Portrait shots do it no justice, in the sense that one experiences the outburst of the organ only after having first seen much else that tutors the eye in Gehry’s language. At street level, one enters the Hall between swooping canopies of stainless steel, and into a lobby filled with flowing surfaces. Large Douglas-fir–clad pillars dominate the entrance, with open-topped sections branching off, not unlike organ pipes (they’re actually air returns). By the time you’ve reached your seat, the array of warm, seductive shapes has been considerable; seen in context, the organ epitomizes what has come before, and seems a fitting culmination. Given the remarkable asymmetry throughout the complex, the Concert Hall is itself surprisingly symmetrical; in its playful chaos, the organ façade is the strongest element connecting the Hall back to the rest of the building.

A second thread is Glatter-Götz’s engineering, ingenuity and daring. The whimsy of the façade is matched by strict discipline within, and an especially elegant organ interior: heavy swell boxes with thick shades, substantial pipes, every principal in tin throughout, wood pipes of equal construction quality to those in the façade, redundant blowers, stairways, and a sleek mobile console, whose terraced-jambs radiate out into fins that resemble the Hall’s own walls. The attached console incorporates mechanical action to the Great, Swell and Positive, while the Llamarada, Pedal, certain manual bass notes and all couplers are electric. Then there are those façade pipes. Made entirely in the Glatter-Götz shops, the curving 32-foot flues and reed resonators are spectacular examples of exacting craftsmanship, built from imported straight-grained Douglas fir. Each pipe is anchored with a steel plated foot. Twin stainless-steel support rods project from the organ’s skeletal frame and connect near the top of each pipe to an interior steel plate. In turn, each top connection is hinged, allowing the pipes a limited degree of motion during an earthquake.

The third point is how the instrument culminates almost two decades of Rosales thinking and eclecticism. While the tonal model is now familiar from Portland, Oakland, Rice University and Claremont, elements are taken to a logical development, in the extreme completeness of the Great chorus, the lavish complement of mutations, many independent reed choruses, and a dominating Pedal. There is novelty in the Llamarada, not only in its terminology but the high wind pressure, enclosure and flared flue pipes. Entirely absent is the mid-1980s sense that Romanticism was not only decadent but expensive: apart from one shared bass (the Positive flutes), one tenor c celeste and a few extended stops, every manual stop is full-compass, with open basses on open flutes, and a complete banishment of half-length chorus reed resonators. The death of neo-Classicism is proclaimed boldly here.

Finally, a personal note: when I worked at Rosales Organ Builders from 1993 to 1995, I regularly accompanied the boss to the Gehry office in Santa Monica. Design meetings were fascinating, from climbing into the 1:10 scale model of the Concert Hall (used for acoustical and visual forecasting) to looking at models of other projects. About the Concert Hall, I was one of those skeptics, but was gradually won over to the freeze-frame explosion, the “enchanted forest” of Gehry’s design, this love-child of the Jolly Green Giant and the Little Match Girl.

Ten years on, it’s breathtaking to see this organ take shape at last. Often we forget how conservative organbuilding is, even at its progressive edges. In the throes of specialization, subtle refinement is sometimes easy to mistake for bold advance. In this organ, the subtle and obvious are equally developed. The organ promises to have a beautiful, complicated ensemble, with color and control galore; there will be much to repay the attention of the serious musician.

The Gehry design, however, propels the experience into an arena more common in the world of design or architecture. Beholding this organ is hardly an automatic definition of progress, but it is unquestionably, daring and modern. It captivates the imagination just as the building itself does. We speak often of the need to interest the general public in our instrument. Given the enthralling success of the Concert Hall, perhaps we have been setting our sights too low?

Glatter-Götz Opus 9/Rosales Opus 24 was installed last summer; voicing commenced in September and as of this writing (April 2004) is beyond the halfway point. The first public concert comes 8 July 2004, as the climax of the American Guild of Organists’ National Convention in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, the Concert Hall continues to receive glowing praise, both architecturally and acoustically, and has hundreds of visitors daily.
Reproduced with permission from the May/June 2004 issue of Choir & Organ. Copyright © Newsquest Specialist Media Ltd 2005