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Billed as “the Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles County,” the Music Center includes four performance venues. Walt Disney Concert Hall, the newest and most distinctive of them, now gets most of the attention. But a visit to Disney Hall is not complete without a walk across First Street to explore the original Music Center complex.
Planning for the Music Center began in 1955, when the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors appointed Dorothy Buffum Chandler as the head of a committee to build a permanent home for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. The daughter of a department store magnate and the wife of the Los Angeles Times publisher, Chandler skillfully exploited her many connections among the Los Angeles power elite. She also solicited numerous smaller donations from the other 99.9%. She raised over $18 million of the final $33 million total cost, after expanding the project to include a complete performing arts center.
The Music Center’s first and largest performance space was thus named the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Completed in 1964, it fulfilled the project’s original goal as a concert hall for the Philharmonic. It was also the home of the Los Angeles Master Chorale; and of the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera, which presented Broadway musicals until 1987. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences held the Academy Awards there between 1969 and 1987. And every Christmas Eve, the Pavilion is open to the public for a six-hour Christmas Eve holiday celebration featuring musical and dance groups from around Los Angeles County. The Los Angeles Opera is the Pavilion’s current main tenant.
Although the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion was conceived as a performance space for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, it ended up as a multi-purpose auditorium. The resulting acoustical compromises made it less than adequate for a symphony orchestra. The main motivation for building Walt Disney Concert Hall was to finally give the Philharmonic a proper venue.
The Music Center’s two other halls were completed in 1967. They honor major donors to the project. Named for real estate developer S. Mark Taper, the 739-seat Mark Taper Forum is a distinctive circular “drum” decorated with concrete friezes. The Ahmanson Theatre has a variable seating configuration to accommodate everything from intimate plays to large-scale musicals. It’s named for Howard Ahmanson, who made his initial fortune selling insurance and then invested it in banks, oil, and real estate.
Dorothy Chandler’s architect friend Welton Beckett designed the Music Center in the “New Formalism” style. New Formalism interpreted the arches, columns, and other classic features of Greco-Roman architecture as stylized geometrical forms. A dominant architectural fad in the 1950s and 1960s, it was obligatory for any major performing arts facility when the Music Center was designed. Although it must have seemed very modern in 1967, the complex today proclaims its mid-20th century historical origin in the same way that Downtown’s Art Deco buildings celebrate the 1930s.
The centerpiece of the plaza between the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and the Mark Taper Forum is a 15-meter-high bronze Cubist sculpture called Peace on Earth. It’s the work of Jacques Lipchitz, a Lithuanian-born Jewish sculptor who fled Nazi-occupied France and settled in the United States. Installed in 1969, it was the artist’s “prayer for peace” in response to the interminable Vietnam War.
Over the years, some members of the Music Center’s Board of Directors have demanded the removal and replacement of the sculpture. They considered it a dated and inappropriate reminder of an unpleasant and divisive period in American history. One reason those critics haven’t prevailed is that Dorothy Chandler not only endorsed the work, but gave it its name. A more likely reason is that the sentiment it expresses remains relevant and contemporary.
Peace on Earth was originally set in a reflecting pool. The reflecting pool was replaced in 1989 with a fountain that shoots computer-controlled patterns of “playful” water jets into the air, to the particular delight of younger visitors.