Walt Disney Concert Hall history: when it was built and who designed it

When Walt Disney died in 1966, he was widely lauded for his groundbreaking animated movies and for his defining contribution to 20th-century American culture.

But he had done his bit for classical music too – in the classic 1940 film Fantasia, a brilliantly imaginative gallery of characters, images and animals disported to music by Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky and others. It literally brought classical music to a whole new audience.

Where is the Walt Disney Concert Hall?

Several decades later, in 1987, Disney’s widow Lillian made an announcement which would expand Walt’s legacy to classical music further. Her plan was to ‘build a world-class performance venue as a gift to the people of Los Angeles and a tribute to Walt Disney’s devotion to the arts’, and Lillian was donating $50m to make it happen. The Disney family’s lawyer requested ‘traditional touches and brass handrails’ in the building, suggesting that something fairly conservative was expected.

Who designed Walt Disney Concert Hall?

Conservative is far from what the family got. When the Walt Disney Concert Hall opened 16 years and $274m later, it was hailed a modernist masterpiece and described as ‘a gleaming clipper ship’, ‘gloriously cartoon-like’ and ‘a musical ark with silver sails that dance in the bright blue California sky’. Cloaked in a seductive steel-panelled skin, the building was, one writer drooled, ‘so stunning that it has been inspiring sexual metaphors’.

The designer of this gleaming edifice was Frank Gehry, a Los Angeles resident with a growing reputation as one of the US’s most innovative architects. Gehry was, though, a risky choice. ‘Nobody had ever trusted him with a large public building or a large budget before,’ one commentator noted.

Gehry’s finished structure was, however, a virtually unqualified triumph. A symphony of elegant curvature in LA’s generally featureless downtown area, it cossetted concert-goers with its soothing Douglas fir and oak interiors. The 2,265-seat auditorium, nestled within the hall’s steely outer carapace, aimed to create a warmly inclusive, intimate impression. ‘No chandeliers, no red velvet seats, no special boxes for wealthy concertgoers,’ one observer wrote. ‘And no proscenium stage that acts as an invisible curtain between audience and performers.’

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Crucially, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Walt Disney Concert Hall’s main occupants, loved what Gehry and his acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota had created. Players raved about how clearly they could hear one another, compared to the sonic compromises of their former home, The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. ‘I am totally happy,’ music director Esa-Pekka Salonen reported, ‘and so is the orchestra.’

When did the Walt Disney Concert Hall open?

At the opening concert on 24 October 2003, the LA Times reported on ‘a black-tie crowd of the powerful and socially prominent’, with ‘a parade of stretch limos and the sort of celebrity buzz that Los Angeles usually reserves for Oscar night’. A small group of demonstrators protested the huge socio-economic disparities they felt the hall highlighted. ‘Do something about people sleeping in cardboard boxes a few blocks from here,’ one protester pointedly commented.

In the auditorium itself, however, there was mounting anticipation as jazz singer Dianne Reeves opened proceedings with an unaccompanied rendition of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’. Music by Bach, Ives, Gabrieli, Ligeti and Mozart followed, before the evening concluded with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring – an appreciative nod, no doubt, to the work’s inclusion in Disney’s Fantasia over six decades earlier.

It was, the New York Times recorded, a thrilling performance where ‘the sound engulfed you as it should but kept the intricacies audible’. Sadly, Lillian Disney was not on hand to hear it. She died aged 98, in 1997, six years before Gehry’s masterly monument to her late husband was completed.

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