But it is part of a larger strategy. While the New World Symphony will continue to present traditional concerts, it will also offer cabaret-style performances. Smaller satellite stages surrounding the main one will allow for evenings that mix orchestral, chamber music and solo performances. Some evenings will be devoted to three short half-hour performances, each costing $2.50, targeted at the flaneurs in flip-flops and club-hopping tourists who swarm Lincoln Road in the evening. Working closely with NWS's founder and music director, Michael Tilson Thomas, Gehry has designed a building sexy enough on the outside to further the orchestra's outreach mission and flexible enough on the inside to explode the old concert format.
Gehry gives Tilson Thomas much of the credit for the revolutionary rethinking of the musical presentation. But Gehry has stamped the building not just with his distinctive formal whimsy, but with his insight into what might be called the ergonomics of cultural institutions. Like Walt Disney Concert Hall, another collaboration with the acoustician Toyota in Los Angeles, New World Center also allows natural light to flow into the concert space. It may seem like a small detail, but natural light radically changes the cloistered feeling of the concert hall, and it's one of those details that shows Gehry at his best.
It reminds one of his clever use of railings in rooms he designed for the Art Gallery of Ontario. The railings serve a dual function, keeping people away from the art, but giving them a place to lean while they study it. He seems to love the old way of doing things enough to ask, "Why can't it be a little better? A little more comfortable and pleasant?"
And the entire form of the structure, with its Gehry-esque elements contained inside the glass box, suggests a happier balance between fantasy and function than has been seen in some of his more recent buildings. The strange torquing forms are still there, but they don't inhabit the city like alien sculptural objects. They beckon you in and make you want to know more. And thus they give architectural form to one of the essential articles of faith among people who love classical music: If only people would give it a chance, they will be converted.
Even better, the twisting forms also contain usable space, practice rooms and rehearsal studios. Gehry points out that they are also nonstructural features, and thus much less expensive than branding the building's exterior with the trademark Gehry curves. They can also be removed, leaving the entire lobby space open. But it's difficult to imagine anyone suggesting that.
It took American orchestras 50 years to reach the level of irrelevance most now enjoy. The New World Symphony, with members that are young and idealistic, is not like other orchestras. It is not unionized, its mission is primarily education, not entertainment, and it has a dynamic leader. Much of what the orchestra is doing can't be imitated. But in the design of its new concert hall, the NWS has made a radical commitment to integrating classical music into a diverse urban landscape and forging new entertainment forms.
If this model prevails, much will be lost. There was dignity to the old orchestral concert - its rituals and formality, its basic offer of a private aesthetic journey through the abstract landscape of pure sound. The grand old orchestral halls that contained this ritual cannot and should not be adapted to do what the New World Symphony is doing. But Gehry's concert hall is convincing even to a skeptic. There is hope for this music yet, in a future very different from, but not worse than, the past, and architecture will be fundamental to finding the way.