We planned an all-day date to hear the LA Philharmonic Orchestra play a two-hour program at Walt Disney Concert Hall and then a fancy dinner afterwards. Strangely we had never been inside the building together, though I (Jared) had been to a few concerts there when I was a student, many years ago.
We knew parking downtown would be unpleasant, and navigating the narrow, busy, one-way streets is a mess. Luckily a reasonable solution to this problem exists in the form of the Metro Red Line subway train. We normally drive a few miles and park at the Universal City Station parking lot (which is thankfully mostly empty on weekends) but today we had the clever idea to park at North Hollywood since the lot there was within walking distance of our dinner venue, itself a place with challenging parking conditions.
So after getting dressed up and packing a sandwich lunch, and running some errands, we parked in the corner of the North Hollywood Station lot and ate our sandwich. We took the Red Line subway train from one end (NoHo) to the second to last stop (from Union Station), Civic Center, a mostly boring journey of approximately 25–30 minutes (boring expect for the fascinating variety of diverse people who take the train). At Civic Center in downtown LA, depending on which side of the train platform you exit—the platform is something like 250 yards long—it is around a block-or-two walk from the Concert Hall.
We made it in time for the pre-show lecture where a gentleman explained to us the stories behind the three pieces we would hear:
- Olivier Messiaen, Un Sourire (A Smile), 1988. A very modern short piece of about ten minutes, inspired by Messiaen's lifetime fascination with birdsong.
- Mieczyslaw Weinberg, Violin Concerto in G Minor, Op. 67, 1959. Approx. 38 minutes. Very frenetic, modern and exciting four-movement piece, played by renowned violinist Gidon Kremer. (After the Weinberg piece, Kremer came out for a short encore performance, a solo violin piece, where he imitated bird sounds on his violin, perhaps another Messiaen piece?)
- Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 4 in G Major, 1899–1901. Approx. an hour. Beautiful four-movement piece that made great use of the different parts of the 90-person orchestra. The fourth movement of this piece includes a solo, sang in the original German, by mezzo-soprano Janai Brugger, who snuck in to sit in the orchestra after the second movement, deployed tactically for just the fourth movement.
We had nearly a half hour after the lecture to explore the garden and grounds on the terrace level (including the giant blue-china-covered, rose-shaped fountain), and even peak inside the different doors into the hall itself, seeing the views from the expensive seats, while a few scattered musicians prepped their instruments on-stage.
When the performances began, we were impressed by the youth and vigor of the conductor, an accomplished woman named Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, a Lithuanian musician who has worked with the LA Phil extensively in the past, and now heads the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in England. Mirga is younger than both of us, and a petite individual. Her fluid gestures would sometimes grow in energy, resulting in motions that carried her into the air several inches. Speaking of youth and vitality, we were definitely some of the youngest in the audience (aside from a small group of students), perhaps a generation younger on average.
The performances of the entire orchestra were sharp, exciting, and very expressive and worth the ticket price, and the acoustics of the hall are world-class. The strings sang and soared, and the french horns would make the angels sigh. The concert hall itself seats over 2,000 people but it really does feel intimate and small, even from the cheap seats. (Our tickets were for the balcony, second row from the back, but near the middle. We had a lot of stairs to climb.)
We made use of our binoculars, watching the patient non-playing musicians counting dozens of bars of rests, watching them get ready to play again (and inferring what was coming—you know it will reach a crescendo when the percussion section sits up) or watching them switch instruments. For example, three clarinetists with 8 clarinets between them, or the contrabassoon, with its extra loops, played by a bassoonist who would also switch to a normal bassoon, even in the same piece. The pieces had notably smaller brass sections, with a few french horns and a few trumpets. The bass section was enormous, to make for a lack of tubas, and each bass had five strings, presumably for extra low range. The basses played beautiful pizzicato parts during much of the lovely Mahler symphony, and made the hall really vibrate when they bowed the strings.
Our favorite, in terms of entertainment value, was the percussion section: the triangle, the jingle bells; one gentleman played the gong and cymbals, another played four timpani, another a colossal bass drum, with jumbo mallets. Royal began craving campfire-toasted marshmallows while watching the percussionists raise their "marshmallow"-ended mallets in preparation for their parts.
Judging by the audience reaction, they enjoyed the performance as much as we did. After the clapping finally died down, we made our way back down to the garden and exited externally, to the street, after enjoying the garden again for a while.
On the way home we took the walking path through Grand Park (behind some of the unimpressive, boxy civic center buildings). Grand Park has an impressive cascade of fountains and a lower, very shallow area, complete with children getting wet, and various rolling lawns and ugly pink park benches (painted to match the lovely pink flowers of the weird green silk floss trees).
We definitely worked up an appetite by the time we arrived in North Hollywood in the San Fernando Valley, and placed some of our items in the trunk of the car and walked about four blocks to Hayat's Kitchen, a Lebanese restaurant on the corner of Vineland and Burbank. Here we ordered the Feast for Two (really a feast for four to six?) with the works. For appetizers: pita with hummus and smokey eggplant baba ghanoush; tabouli salad (diced onions, garlic and parsley); a special garlic sauce with a creamy texture like mayonnaise made by blending garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, and ice; tahini sauce to dip falafel and fried minty-cheese rolls in.
Eventually, when the main course came, we gorged ourselves on kebob: a huge side of garlic fries and onion slices to go with the roasted tomato and jalapeño, grilled chicken, kafta (a beef sausage), and fillet mignon steak—with enough leftovers for breakfast, lunch, and dinner the next day. When our check came, we each got a delicious piece of complementary baklava.
We were wiped out when we made it home that evening but happy to enjoy an unusual and exciting day—unusual in the sense that though we saw a number of birds (hummingbirds, yellow-rumped warblers, and even a ruby crowned kinglet, returned for winter) we did not make a checklist, something we have been doing for months now.