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by RIP RENSE

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FIDGETING IN DIZZY HALL. . .
(March 31, 2004) 

        I don't mean to harp on Disney Hall too much. I've already trumpeted my view about The Silver Stunt on this site and in the L.A. Times. Bass-ically, you know my position. And if you don't, I'm not about to beat that drum again. But I do have some new notes to share. . .
        I must report that Dizzy Hall---I'm telling you, those slanted walls make me wobble---has a very serious problem with percussion.
        No, no---not the fine players who slam the timpani, tickle the triangles, and bong the gongs. I refer to amateur soloists. Improvisers who are adding extra zing and cling and clang and stomp. I refer to those virtuosos of auditory violence; those masters of instruments of intrusion such as: the feet, the cell phone, the cough, the conversation, the door slam, the sneeze.
        Dizzy Hall showcases their talents like no other auditorium in the world! Hoorah for the joint's much ballyhooed acoustics! You not only can hear a pin drop in the place, you can hear it cut the air on its way down! And I am not alone in my opinion. I cite as evidence the behavior of none other than L.A. Philharmonic conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen.
        But allow me to digress a moment. . .
         L.A. Times Music Critic Mark Swed often reviews concerts as if Dizzy Hall is a co-performer. Interpretations ride, he suggests, very much on acoustics--- maybe even more than on technical skill or interpretive bent of conductor/soloist/orchestra.
        For years before its opening, Swed touted the Silver Stunt, and its sound---savaging the poor, bat-friendly Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in the process. No less a personage than Music Center Grand Wazir Ernest Fleischmann once cited Swed's support as perhaps the singlemost important factor in getting Dizzy built!
        And once the freakish palace opened, Mark went on a tear---writing a parade of nearly hallucinogenic reviews that, among other things, suggested the place might "change the world." His praise was ejaculatory; he swooned and mooned over the new room in embarrassing verbal ecstasy.
        But he was right: the acoustics are a marvel! I have never heard such discretion and resonance of sound outside of headphones. The sonics are so sensitive, in fact, that they magnify every grunt, haunch-shift, foot-shuffle, nasal spasm, scratch and snort to brilliant projection and clarity! To use Swed's favorite word in describing music, Dizzy Hall turns the body movements and bodily functions of the crowd into a "visceral" experience! (If that isn't redundant.)
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At last, sheer nervousness set in, as the crowd wondered just what in Disney Hell was going on? Was this a parlor game in the Salonen Salon?
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        I mean, in 30 years of sitting through concerts in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, I can honestly say I never once heard virus-ridden sinus cavities produce such gloriously realized ca-cough-ony! And gee whiz, when late arrivals were seated during the music at the DCP, I could barely hear their footsteps at all! It's true that when some concertgoers insisted on humming or even (gasp) speaking during the music, I would hear a murmur, but heck, in Dizzy Hall, I can pick up the actual conversation!
        It's one big sounding board!
        Consider:
        The other night, I attended a performance of Shostakovich's 9th symphony and Mahler's "Des Knaben Wunderhorn." Oh, the music was well realized, but the most attention-getting performance came from the audience.
        Here is how Swed began his review of the same evening:
        "Thursday night, the Los Angeles Philharmonic program began with the most exciting performance of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 9. . .I've ever heard. Then came Matthias Goerne's spellbinding performance of songs from Mahler's 'Des Knaben Wunderhorn.'. . .If the audience was uncharacteristically noisy, this was the clamor of activity, not boredom---the result of a bolt of electricity shot through Walt Disney Concert Hall."
        What's funny, if not downright dishonest, about Swed's latest shilling for Dizzy, is that the "clamor of activity" began. . .before the music! Right. Swed seems to say that the crowd was buzzed by the performance---but it was buzzing long before a single note was struck---and what's more, much to Salonen's apparent dismay.
        Here's what really happened:
        As Salonen appeared, the crowd was a symphony in fidgeting. Shostakovich's 9th? Unlikely that even a Dimitri devotee would be shot through with a "bolt of electricity" awaiting such taut, icy, cerebral, deliberately un-rousing musical snickering. My guess: it was just the thrill of being seen in Dizzy Hall, probably with a little booze under the belt.
        Esa-Pekka gave his usual perfunctory head bow to customary applause as he took the podium, but then. . .he just stood there. And he stood there a little more. After a while, he stood a bit. And in between standing there, he also stood there. And just when you thought he had finished standing there, he did some more standing.
        What was he doing? Clearing his mind? Chanting? Trying to remember which piece he was conducting?
        No. He was waiting for the Night Before Christmas, when not a creature was stirring, not even Mickey Mouse.
        At last the fidgeting ratcheted down to something approaching concert hall "quiet." Problem is, in Dizzy Hall, this isn't quiet. It's more on the order of a large crowd of people very, very quietly trying to crumple paper. A sort of hiss built of squirming, throat-clearing, program-rustling, mumbling. One of Swed's heroes, John Cage, would have loved it! Nocturne for Silent Orchestra and Waiting Audience. Concerto for Haunch Shifting and Continuo.
        And Esa-Pekka. . .continued to wait! Long enough for me to think up my own Dr. Seuss rhyme just for the occasion:
        So he waited, and waited, and waited, did he/ And waited some more, and still more, you see / He waited so long, you'd swear you were wrong/ To think there was any more wait left to be!
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Salonen, famously annoyed by the plumped patter of subscriber feet when the hall first opened, soldiered on.
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        After a while, the audience wondered what Pekka was waiting for, and began squirming more loudly, then whispering, and then. . .grumbling! Yet Pekka remained still as sheet music. At last, sheer nervousness set in, as the crowd wondered just what in Disney Hell was going on? Was this a parlor game in the Salonen Salon? A bit of conductorial comedy? Yes, that must be it---and, you guessed it, folks---
        The crowd began to. . .laugh.
        Titters and giggles rippled around the weird interior of the building (which always makes me think of looking down a whale's throat.)
        But Esa didn't move a Pekka.
        And to think: all this entertainment happened even before a single note was played! Wow! I was getting the most out of my $35 last-row-in-top-balcony seat!
        At length, the laughter gave way to complete mystification, then. . .another round of nervous laughter. Perhaps a full two minutes passed. The next phase would have certainly been irritation, rhythmic clapping, or booing, and possibly sensing this, the conductor finally gave up and gave the downbeat.
        But the show wasn't over.
        Shostakovich was augmented by the following solos not found in the score: clomp-clomp-clomp of aleatoric meter as latecomers were seated; a ringing cell phone that was actually louder than the ringing triangle in the fourth movement; thundering ker-flunks of slamming doors somewhere in the building; a protracted conversation from a gentleman who perhaps thought he was in his living room, with the stereo on (Dizzy Hall Dame Deborah Borda should be thrilled, having dubbed Dizzy "L.A.'s living room"); and the usual universe of ah-choos and ahems so unrestrained that you'd think they originated in the Ozarks.
        Salonen, famously annoyed by the plumped patter of subscriber feet when the hall first opened, soldiered on. Between movements, he again employed the "wait or faint" method of hushing the herd, finally evidencing perhaps just a touch of petulance as he took his "attention, orchestra" pose with such suddenness---such aggression (disgust?)---as to provoke yet another round of laughter in the audience. Why, that cute little music director, you could almost hear the audience think, he's having fun with us again! What a cut-up!
        At last, Salonen apparently threw in the towel, barely betraying another whit of impatience with his surprise musical collaborators. Until, that is, the conclusion of a beguiling, at times downright arresting rendition of "Wunderhorn" songs with baritone Matthias Goerne. Here the conductor made a point of holding arms aloft well after the music ended, leaving them up for a good twenty or thirty seconds to stave off the automatic blunderbuss standing, raving ovation that greets every piece since audiences began coming for the "show," rather than substance.
        And by golly, the crowd was finally cowed. There was not so much as a whispered "bravo" before Pekka's palms dropped at his sides.
        Guess he showed 'em!
        So: a warning to future visitors to the hyper-sensitive echo chamber that is Dizzy Hall: walk softly when Esa-Pekka carries that big stick. And a word to Swed: the "bolt of electricity" you describe may be your own.

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