Savoring symphonic heaven in the City of Angels

November 28, 2003|By Jamie Stiehm

LOS ANGELES - My musical life passed before my eyes last Friday night when the Berlin Philharmonic played Schubert in the new Walt Disney Concert Hall, an architectural fantasia that has captivated the City of Angels.

As a girl growing up in Los Angeles, I went with my father to the symphony often, just the two of us, to hear the L.A. Philharmonic. In those days, the conductor was the urbane Zubin Mehta, whose oil portrait hung in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion - until lately the home of the Philharmonic.

That was in the late 1970s. As I remember, the chandeliers against the mirrors made the pavilion seem ablaze as you came in from downtown, an empty horizon at 8 o'clock.

But under Mr. Mehta's baton, the horns and strings could transport you to a timeless sphere, one where Beethoven and Schubert were still composers living in Vienna. For a 16-year-old practicing the Pathetique Sonata on the piano every day, this was heady stuff. Week by week, I was becoming a citizen of the classical music world.

Concert-going with my father was a special pleasure. When he was a pediatric resident in New York, he used to get standing-room-only tickets at the Met. At Dorothy Chandler, we were in one of the house's balconies, because there's nothing he loves more than an exuberant symphony well played. To see my ironic father swept away in a sea of music was fun.

Now, three years into the new century, I'm 42 and looking for my father in the lush interior of the Frank Gehry-designed Disney Concert Hall, which undulates indoors and out. I can't get over the flow of people hours before the concert; in the old days, the audience showed up at 8 and left at 11 as if there were a no-lingering ordinance.

An elegantly spare cafM-i seemed to be the nexus for many. In fact, I ran into a few old friends, including my former piano teacher, Ellen Batzdorf, headed there with her husband. She warmly asked after my piano as if we could pick up that Chopin nocturne where we left off. She said the last time she heard the Berlin Philharmonic was in London in 1947.

I had never heard the orchestra said to be the best in the world, period. Nor had my dad. The evening concert, with the centerpiece Schubert's Symphony No. 9, "The Great" symphony, promised to be singular - quite likely the best we would hear in our concert-going lives.

Then I made a new friend, Esther Lebovich, a Russian Jew who had landed in Los Angeles and become a public school teacher years ago. She said the L.A. Philharmonic musicians, conducted by the Finnish Esa-Pekka Salonen, are "playing like gods" under their new stainless-steel roof. And she took me up to see the outdoor garden and children's amphitheater designed into the structure's side - along with a grace note, a petal-shaped fountain called "A Rose for Lilly," which Mr. Gehry created to honor the late Lillian Disney.

Ms. Lebovich said she was thrilled for her inner-city students. "This is something they can be proud of, a leap into the future. This belongs to them," she said.

My father arrived, looking as boyish as a 70-year-old can in his trademark bow tie. We and the 2,198 other concert-goers were excited about the triangular convergence we were about to witness. Even Mr. Gehry, the Los Angeles-based architect, was there to hear Berlin play Schubert and summed up his state of mind as "going nuts."

The hall is mostly gold, with two skylights that looked like the sky you see at night. To be surrounded by its sculptured curves is an experience in itself. But to sit there while every member of the Berliner Philharmoniker plays his or her heart out in precise and lilting cadence with Sir Simon Rattle virtually flying off the podium - that's another matter. Has old Viennese music ever sounded so good in the New World? Hey, Cleveland, Chicago and Philadelphia (whose illustrious orchestra is also playing in a 21st century hall), it happened here in this shiny new house on the block.

Sir Simon and his Berliners, clearly inspired by the outrageously daring setting, hit every note like a bell and sent it soaring across the space. I realized that truly I had never heard an orchestra play so masterfully with such authority and zest. Thanks to my father's teaching over the years, as a coda I could hear the difference between good, great and sublime - "going nuts" time.

My father, mindful of the symphony's every mood, was shaking his head in delight, as if to say this hour in history was worth waiting for.

Yes, it was.

Jamie Stiehm is a reporter for The Sun.

Columnist Steve Chapman will return Tuesday.

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