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A Symphony in Stainless Steel

Designer Frank Gehry, outside Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Loretta Williams, NPR News /
Designer Frank Gehry, outside Walt Disney Concert Hall.

After almost 40 years, the Los Angeles Philharmonic is performing its very last concerts in Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. In the fall, the orchestra moves across the street, into a brand new home. The Walt Disney Concert Hall has been 15 years in the making, at a final cost of some $274 million. It's designed by one of the most acclaimed contemporary architects. NPR's Susan Stamberg went to downtown Los Angeles for a hard-hat tour of the new building.

"This just might be one of the great American buildings -- right up there with the Chrysler Building in New York, and Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water in Pennsylvania," Stamberg reports for Morning Edition.

Disney Hall is designed by Frank Gehry, who got so much attention for his Guggenheim Museum, in Bilbao, Spain. "The Bilbao museum is clad in titanium -- a billowing swoop of gold and sunset colors. Gehry's Los Angeles concert hall is swooping, too. But the L.A. swoops are silver," Stamberg says.

"We selected a different finish so it would stand apart," Gehry explains.

The building features stainless steel "just one-sixteenth of an inch thick -- curving and sailing in waves to form two towers, an entry way, the auditorium," Stamberg says. "In the sun, the stainless turns pewter, then greige, with a smudge of blue. In clouds, the steel goes flat -- to matte gray. It's like a fine old black and white photograph -- or an Astaire and Rogers movie. A soaring swirl of a building -- not a straight line in sight -- occupying a full city block smack in the center of L.A.'s dull downtown skyscrapers."

The new building stands in "not a particularly beautiful part of the city -- actually a very tough gritty urban part of the city," says Nicolai Ouroussoff, architecture critic for The Los Angeles Times. He calls the concert hall "sexy," adding that "nothing in this country looks like that. No, nothing."

L.A. Philharmonic conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen can only imagine what the auditorium will sound like. The orchestra won't start rehearsing there until the end of June. But Stamberg says, "the final sound remains a mystery until the official opening in late October -- and it will take months of adjustments before the sound is fully set."

Still Salonen and Gehry just couldn't wait to hear the music. One day, the conductor asked principal violinist Martin Chalifour to play his instrument inside the half-completed auditorium (the seats weren't even installed and there was a hole where the stage should be).

Chalifour was so excited he didn't even want to tune his violin. He just launched into Bach.

Gehry says that as he sat with Salonen in the back of the auditorium, "I grabbed his hand and the first notes we started crying."

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Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.
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