10 years of Disney Hall: From 'Temple of Doom' to LA icon (PHOTOS)

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With the Walt Disney Concert Hall marking its 10th anniversary in October, the L.A. Philharmonic has a month of special events planned to celebrate the occasion, including concerts with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, jazz musician Herbie Hancock, local artists La Santa Cecilia and the orchestra's previous music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen.

With its swooping curves and eye-catching metallic exterior, the Frank Gehry-designed building has become a fixture of downtown Los Angeles. The interior, with acoustics by Yasuhisa Toyota, is praised by classical music fans for delivering rich, intimate sound to all 2,265-seats.

But the bold design wasn't always so popular says L.A.. Phil president and CEO, Deborah Borda.

The 'Mouse House'

The genesis of the concert hall began when Lillian Disney, widow of Walt Disney, donated $50 million toward a new performance space in 1987. (The orchestra had been performing in the Music Center's Dorothy Chandler Pavilion since 1964.)

It wasn't until more than a decade later, on December 13, 1999, that shovels hit the dirt on the lot between Hope St. and Grand Avenue and 1st and 2nd streets in downtown L.A.

Some critics used the nickname "The Mouse House" — because of its Disney connection — for the new concert hall, a title Borda says she disliked "intensely." Some called it the "Temple of Doom," because of its escalating cost, or other derisive names.

But by the time construction was completed in October, 2003, Gehry had become internationally renowned for his design of The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain. Borda says that helped people embrace the building and its unique look.

A hands-on experience

The week the hall opened, she recalled during a Sunday morning interview in her office, people were constantly taking pictures and many were walking up and touching the shiny metal surface.

"They were so awed by the building they would literally have to put their hands on," she explained. 

As it quickly became covered in prints, a worried Borda called Gehry asking what should be done. After all, could they really debut the $274 million building with dusty hand markings on its sides?

Borda said Gehry's response was simple: "That shows people love it," she remembered him saying. "It's great! Leave them!"

To this day, people still touch the walls and leave their mark on the concert hall.

A decade of Disney Hall

In the 1o years since the hall opened, the Philharmonic has had many notable moments in its new home. Esa-Pekka Salonen gave his final performance as music director there. Gustavo Dudamel made his debut as the Phil's newest leader shortly thereafter.

Works by John Adams premiered at the hall and performances by the orchestra were even beamed to theaters around the country via satellite.

In 2006, the Philharmonic started a program called Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, which provides instruments and training for young musicians. The program, based on Venezuela's famous El Sistema music program, which produced Dudamel, is one Borda's proudest achievements.

Thriving in the 21st Century

Still, challenges lie ahead for the Philharmonic and Disney Hall in the next decade.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is planning a subway line near the building. There is concern that, without proper mitigation, the vibrations could impact the acoustics of the hall.

“It would be... not just a national embarrassment, but an international embarrassment and disgrace if anything happened to compromise the acoustics of Walt Disney Concert Hall,” Borda remarked. She said acoustic engineers will work closely with the MTA to prevent that from happening.

In the meantime, Borda is focused on finding ways to make sure orchestral music doesn't get pegged as a genre that stopped being creative in the 20th century.

She said the Phil will commission new music and experiment with more types of programming over the next decade. As for the immediate future, Borda said the organization has three years of performances mapped out, but she won't leak the details just yet.

"I'm keeping a few secrets," she said with a smile.


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