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My Night at the Phil

By Frank J. Gruber

A couple weeks ago I attended my first Los Angeles Philharmonic concert at the new Walt Disney Concert Hall, and I found myself reflecting on all the nonsense I read in October when the Phil opened its spectacular new home.

Not that the house Frank Gehry built doesn't inspire awe. Nor was the concert anything less than wonderful. The Phil, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, and five talented singers performed Haydn's "The Creation," and they and the room did make you believe you were "in the beginning."

But thinking back to what the critics and civic leaders and others wrote and said at the opening, I wondered if anyone knows anything about this "island on the land," as Carey McWilliams described Southern California. Or is it just that much easier to recycle conventional wisdom?

You know what I'm talking about: the old "real city" question, as in, "are we one?" As screenwriter Naomi Foder, quoted in the L.A. Times, ineffably expressed it, "Speaking as a New Yorker, this is beginning to feel like a real city."

Or, in an alternative formulation, stories datelined Los Angeles couldn't fail to mention those peripatetic suburbs, sometimes sixty, sometimes more, but always wandering, wandering, "in search of a center" (Bernard Weinraub, New York Times).

Then there were the obligatory references to the Hollywood sign as symbol of our ephemeral culture, as in "a civic triumph for [Los Angeles], which now has something other than the sun bleached white letters of the 'Hollywood' sign to flaunt on postcards" (Blair Kamin, Chicago Tribune Architecture Critic).

It's not only the outlanders who have no idea. John B. Emerson, chairman of the Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles County, found a way to touch every base in just a few sentences:

"When people think of Los Angeles, they think of the entertainment industry. They don't think of culture. They think of sprawl and a place that doesn't have a core. ... When people think of Los Angeles (post-Disney Hall), the first image that pops into their mind won't be just the Hollywood sign."

That poor sign.

And wait a minute -- I thought the Getty Center already put us on the cultural map. Or was it the Museum of Contemporary Art?

I don't mean to be unappreciative of the facilities, but was anyone asking to be validated?

Personally, I like living in a city that is defined not by the culture it consumes, but by the culture it creates.

Maybe the most ironic comments about Disney Hall and its sociological impact came from Eli Broad, the philanthropist who made his billions the old-fashioned Southern California way, by building sprawling housing developments. He told Mr. Weinraub, the New York Times correspondent, that no one in Los Angeles travelled from the west side to the east side, and that now, post-Disney Hall, "we can all unite in the center."

Apparently Mr. Broad doesn't eat Chinese in Monterey Park -- and I feel sorry for him about that -- but I would like him to explain (i), who are all those people on the 10, and (ii), how nineteen million Southern Californians, with all their different languages and cuisines, musics and arts, can fit "in the center" -- even with the new wide sidewalks on Grand Avenue.

Pardon my arrogance, but the idea that Southern Californians have a cultural inferiority complex -- particularly because downtown L.A. offends every urban instinct -- is hilarious.

It's like the idea of a rivalry between L.A. and San Francisco, or that old William Hamilton New Yorker cartoon: a couple are removing winter coats in the foyer of an upscale apartment. The woman says to the man, "Be sure to tell them how much you miss the seasons."

Here's another quote about Disney Hall, from Paul Goldberger, the New Yorker's Architecture Critic: "It is a serene, ennobling building that will give people in this city of private spaces a new sense of the pleasures of public space."

The building is serene and ennobling, but contrary to the experiences of literati on safari, the quintessential L.A. experience is not a salon in Brentwood.

If Mr. Goldberger wants to sense the pleasures of public space, he might join a million or so people on the beach, or 50,000 people at Dodger Stadium 80 nights a year, or stroll the Promenade or Broadway in downtown L.A., or eat lunch at the Farmers Market in Fairfax.

Photo by Frank Gruber

Or consider this, from Herbert Muschamp, New York Times Architecture Critic: "What is being reborn is the idea of the urban center as a democratic institution: a place where voices can be heard."

As much as I cherish my opera and Phil subscriptions, as proud as I am that Schoenberg and Stravinsky exiled themselves here, I doubt that a hall with 2,265 seats, at symphonic prices, is going to turn downtown L.A. -- home of the glass tower and the viaduct -- into a democratic institution, or even the idea of one.

If culture plus public plus democracy equals city, then L.A. doesn't have much to worry about, and for that matter anyone who has ever seen the roof of a Ship's Restaurant or the Cinerama Dome knows that when Mr. Gehry designed Disney he drew from the cantilevers, parabolas and ellipses of an earlier local architecture.

Southern California is too busy creating culture to worry much about how and where we consume it. It's not just the obvious stuff, television, music, and movies, although as for the last it means a lot -- regardless of the condescension to Hollywood and its sign -- to be the center of the universe for the art the world most universally understands, the one art that appeals to all social classes in nearly all nations.

It's all the other stuff, all the influence Southern California has, culture in the anthropological sense. Fashion, styles, design, politics, mores and morals, technology. Skateboarders and surfers, low-riders and Valley Girls. The products of a wide open society of immigrants and exiles.

If we could just let everyone know that the whole place didn't burn down last month.
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