Can a building make L.A.'s heart sing?

It looks like an exploding metal artichoke. Some claim it will be - at long last - this city's plush club car to international cachet. Others quietly fear its tin-plate "starchitecture" will remain a tourist novelty and not ignite the downtown cultural scene as city leaders hope.

When conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen raises his baton for the inaugural concert of Walt Disney Concert Hall here tonight, he will by most accounts raise the ambiguous cultural profile of Los Angeles worldwide.

At the least, the nation's second-largest city, embraced around the globe for its entertainment industry but derided for cultural shallowness, now has an impressive focal point.

A flamboyant exclamation point of curvaceous stainless steel, perched atop the downtown's highest hill, Disney Hall is already being hailed by serious critics as a visual and aural delight if not a masterpiece of architecture and acoustics.

Time will tell if its promise lives up to their praise or fulfills architect Frank Gehry's dream of providing a "living room for the city.... [Maestro Salonen] will be at the same time conducting the inside and outside of the building in a wonderful symphony."

It's also uncertain if the building will help usher in the grand urban experiment that its boosters are hoping for: a meaningful downtown crossroads for Los Angeles' disparate racial and economic classes. The shiny new edifice now complements a growing "living room" of cultural landmarks atop Bunker Hill in downtown - all trying to provide a central meeting ground for the region's many cultural communities.

With its surrounding music center, the hall's swooping facades rise across the street from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion - the previous home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and site of global Oscar telecasts. It faces the Arata Isozaki- designed Museum of Contemporary Art, and is just blocks from the new $200 million Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. "Disney Hall is the biggest building block yet in the downtown's giant social experiment to cross-fertilize its civic institutions and cultural life," says Thomas Crow, director of the Getty Research Institute. "Now the question is how and whether they all work together."

Disney Hall will do its part as home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, often seen as hub of the city's high culture. "The Los Angeles Philharmonic is one of the great orchestras of the world, it has always needed a hall worthy of its greatness, now it finally has one," says composer John Williams.

But because of long-entrenched notions of symphony orchestras as "high culture," some say there is already a fundamental tension between architect Gehry's communal vision and the perceived elitism of the Philharmonic - which plays the classics of Beethoven, Bach, and Brahms but is also known for less-accessible modern music from Berg and Schonberg to Boulez.

This is, after all, the same city that produces such films as "Scary Movie 3" and "Jackass, the Movie."

"People in Los Angeles are obviously attracted to popular culture and less to what we call high culture," says Paul Holdengraber, director of the county museum's Institute for Art and Cultures. "In this case, what will Disney Hall be? We will have children's programming but the core is still the Philharmonic, which by its nature is not the most open medium for people."

It's hard to miss the shiny-slick exterior, which one critic says may be the most significant work ever created by a Los Angeles architect. But others only squint and say it looks like a phantasmagorical battleship constructed by "toon town" characters.

Conceived by renowned modernist Gehry, whose similar rose-design museum put Bilbao, Spain, on the world map, Disney Hall has been 16 years in the making.

The project was first announced in 1987 with a $50 million gift from Lillian Disney, Walt's widow, but construction stalled again and again as the city struggled against skyrocketing costs, civil unrest, and natural disasters. It took fundraising efforts from billionaire businessman and philanthropist Eli Broad to pay the building's eventual price of $274 million.

Tonight, the public begins its inner exploration of the cavernous concert space. No pillars will block views as the audience take their seats in an auditorium that completely envelopes a sunken orchestra pit. And no separate, private boxes will interfere with the Gehry's vision of intimacy and inclusion.

"It's such a sensitive communal space," said Salonen in an interview. "The audience will have to learn to cough quietly." He adds the acoustics are so sensitive he will be able to point from the podium to an offensively ringing cellphone.

He hopes for a broader range of audience goers than the Philharmonic has ever known - some regular seats are promised at an affordable $15 and plans are under way to expand educational offerings for children and adults alike. Nine world premières - more than any previous season - are scheduled, as are new presentation series in jazz, baroque, and World Music.

"Disney Hall will do as much for the community as it does in giving the orchestra the world-class acoustic space it has long needed," says Jack McAuliffe, chief operating officer of the American Symphony Orchestra League. "It's going to bring people in to hear the orchestra that have never thought of listening or bothered to come downtown for a concert. They will be attracted to the dramatic building and then will hear powerful acoustical music by one of the world's great orchestras."

Wait and see, say others, especially in an era in which landmark architecture is becoming a cultural phenomenon by itself. Buildings such as the Sydney Opera House and the Bilbao Museum are on the checklists of cruise ships and tour operators but are not necessarily enhancing the local cultural community.

"It remains to be seen whether [Disney Hall] enhances downtown with [neighborhood] concertgoers," says Crow, or if it becomes more like the great animator's other namesake, where tour buses have long come to idle.

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