Sunday, November 09, 2003

LA Scene: Disney Hall's Special Friday Night Series

First Night of First Nights

(Fifth in a series of occasional posts on Los Angeles life)

Dear Kari,

I know I've have been blogging Walt Disney Hall like crazy. Well, I finally went there to attend an actual concert last Friday night.

I had dinner with my friend at Tesoro Trattoria before the concert. It was a nice Italian place with good food. Service was okay but not great. They were busy that night and seemed a little frazzled. Decor and atmosphere was nice. Its proximity to the Disney Hall was a huge plus. All we had to do was walk about four blocks north on Grand and we were at the Hall.

We enjoyed looking around the Hall inside and outside. There was a certain buzz in the air among the sell-out crowd. Lots of ohhs, ahhs and wows as people looked around! We settled into our seats and I have to say that was one nitpick with the design: leg room was in short supply. "Budget" seat life just like on airplanes!

The other nitpick I have was the sound system for speaking voice. The First Nights program included some narration and spoken dialog by actors on stage and at times it was hard to hear. I don't know if it was due to sitting behind the orchestra that caused the problem or if acoustics optimized for music meant that the speaking voice was harder to hear.

I've now mentioned "First Nights" twice and you may be wondering what that was all about. There was a book with that title that described the premier nights of five famous classical works placing the works in their historical context. Thus, the LA Phil has designed a four-concert series based on that concept.

John Delancie, Q of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame, was the writer, director and narrator for the evening. Along with Delancie were actors and ballet dancers on stage at various times to illustrate the points of the backstory to the Rite of Spring.

Delancie explained that on May 29, 1913, Stravinsky's groundbreaking work, The Rite of Spring, was performed in Paris at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees to a raucous reception. He said, it is hard describe so let's just show you.

At this point, Salonen, the LA Phil Music Director, signaled the orchestra to play a volatile passage in the Rite of Spring as ballet dancers performed. Soon, there were shouts, boos and exclamations of disapproval raining down on the stage from all sides by the other actors in the First Nights production. The audience quickly caught on to what was happening and laughed and participated. Thus, the first First Nights event began.

It was an entertaining storytelling device and educational to boot. The narration was often keyed to images on the big screens with photos and paintings of Paris, people of the era and art of the time. The actors on stage played the parts of Stravinsky, the ballet choreographer, the orchestra conductor and the Theatre owner and ballet dancers. They played out on stage the process of the development of the Rite of Spring from concept to initial sketches on piano and various decisions leading up to the fateful night when the work premiered.

The theatre owner wanted maximum shock value so he demanded that three fairly familiar works be played before the final event of the Rite premier. He ordered that a Chopin piece precede the Stravinsky work. Thus, the "concert" at this point "began" with the Chopin. It was nice and melodic and soothing. The work finished and Salonen and the LA Phil launched into the Rite of Spring.

For all the hoopla about the building's architectural novelty, the bottom line is the sound. I have to say from all reports and from my ears, they made the dream come true. The Rite has passages where the music is carried quietly by one or two instruments and you can hear them. In other parts, there is an avalanche of sound and yet, the instruments don't pile up into one big noise. Instead, you hear and feel the music with a clarity never heard in the old venue, the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion.

90 years ago, as the Rite played on its First Night, audience reports indicated the booing, hissing and disparaging remarks drowned the music out such that the ballet dancers were losing track of the beat of the music. As the final booming notes faded at LA's First First Nights, the crowd roared its approval with a standing ovation.