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The Los Angeles Philharmonic Inaugurates Walt Disney Concert Hall banner
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Enveloped in Sound: An Acoustical Tour of Walt Disney Concert Hall
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By Alan Rich

Long before the emergence of Los Angeles as the world capital of all things entertaining, a taste for serious music had already been implanted. A Los Angeles Philharmonic Society offered a four-concert season, starting in 1889. A competing Los Angeles Symphony took the field in 1898, with a particular dedication to music of American composers. Its performance space, seating 2,400 and known simply as The Auditorium, was at its time the largest reinforced concrete building in California. By 1920, it would be renamed the Philharmonic Auditorium and serve as home to a new and braver enterprise, dubbed by its founder "as fine an orchestral institution as has existed in America." That founder was the Los Angeles copper baron and arts enthusiast William Andrews Clark Jr., and the orchestra he formed -- and financed single-handedly until his death in 1934 -- flourishes today as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which takes up residence in its fourth and most splendiferous venue, the Walt Disney Concert Hall, in 2003.

To be conductor of this new musical ensemble, Clark approached Sergey Rachmaninoff, who had recently fled the Russian Revolution and settled in New York. But the great Russian virtuoso/conductor/composer was apparently unwilling to undertake another journey into unknown lands. Instead, British-born Walter Henry Rothwell, a well-routined and secure musician who had once served as assistant to Gustav Mahler, was chosen. In its first home, Philharmonic Auditorium -- a garish Art Deco venue close to downtown's Pershing Square -- Rothwell built a solid musical foundation for the new orchestra, aided by the Clark bankroll that enabled the hiring of top musicians from other ensembles. Upon his death in 1927, Rothwell was succeeded by the Finnish conductor Georg Schnéevoigt (1927-29) and then by the young firebrand Artur Rodzinski (1929-33), who would later move on to lead the New York Philharmonic.

By 1933, with the rising tide of Nazism, a great exodus had begun in Central Europe. Musicians fearful for their careers -- even their lives -- grabbed the first boat to safer shores. Many of these refugees made their way to Los Angeles, drawn by the benign climate and by the hope of millions to be earned in the fast-growing movie industry. Otto Klemperer was one of the first of the great musicians to make it to the city of angels. In his native Berlin, he had been one of the leading supporters of the contemporary arts; now, as the new head of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, with such friends as the eminent innovator Arnold Schoenberg close at hand, he might have welcomed the chance to rebuild a latter-day Berlin culture under the orange trees and the palms.

However, it didn't quite work out that way. For all the new horizons Klemperer's six-year leadership opened -- giving the city its first hearings of Mahler, for example -- his tenure was marred by frequent tiffs with the players (who drew his ire by insisting on calling him "Klempie") and the beginnings of a depressive illness that would cripple him sporadically for the rest of his life. Furthermore, in 1934 the Philharmonic's one- and only benefactor, William Andrews Clark, died, leaving the orchestra with no endowment to assure its future.

A new organization was hastily formed -- the Southern California Symphony Association -- and it set about establishing a new and safer conduit for funding that would secure the future of the Philharmonic. One viable source of income came with the building of the Hollywood Bowl, an acoustically remarkable outdoor venue a few miles north of downtown, where concerts could -- and often did -- attract an audience of 20,000 or more. Given the area's rainless summer climate, the Bowl soon became one of the Philharmonic's most reliable cash cows, and so it remains.

Top banner photos: Interior, exterior, and sketch of the Walt Disney Concert Hall designed by architect Frank Gehry. (Photo credit from left to right: Federico Zignani, David Miller, and Gehry Partners/Los Angeles Philharmonic.)

Cellists (photo by Mathew Imaging/Los Angeles Philharmonic)

This program marks the Los Angeles Philharmonic's debut on GREAT PERFORMANCES. (Photo by Mathew Imaging/Los Angeles Philharmonic.)

Pipe organ (photo by Federico Zignani/Los Angeles Philharmonic)

The pipe organ is located behind the stage between two sections of the audience area. (Photo by Federico Zignani/Los Angeles Philharmonic.)

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