Private Ritual, Public Display
There’s no better immersion into the vast canon of classical music than an al fresco, starlit night at the Hollywood Bowl. It’s a testament to Los Angeles’ oft derided cultural capital that such an elite treasure not only exists amidst the swirl of celebrity tinsel-itis, but flourishes three months out of every year and has done so since 1922.
Having experienced live music far and wide, the Hollywood Bowl is tied for first along with Red Rocks for Best Outdoor Venue, and I am not alone in the assessment. This is California’s most mellifluous socio-cultural gem, and would rank high in global rankings as well. In addition to to its’ awesome physical structure and consistently impeccable programming, the Bowl actually encourages its’ visitors to bring their own food and wine in with them; a rare invitation in light of most venue’s price gouging propensities.
When aliens touch down and The Committee to Bore Them With Banalities is formed, I will personally petition against an evening at The Celebrity Scientology Center, and for Cabernet and classical music at the Bowl.
The myth of venue’s creation mirrors the origin of theater in ancient Greece. Both traditions evolved from exclusive spiritual gatherings held in the woods, into secular entertainment open to the public.
In the Archaic period, it was the worshipers of Dionysus giving libations to Mother Nature while drinking and chanting and dancing and occasionally ripping a fellow celebrant limb from limb. The metamorphosis into proper theater took centuries to complete, but the potential carnage is the unconscious reason most of us go.
The Mysteries were a celebration of the vegetative cycle: birth, growth (the ordeal of life), death, and rebirth. The Cult’s primary ambition was to escape the artifices of society and celebrate uninhibited loss of self in nature.
The primal dithyrambs they performed to achieve “oneness” included trance-chants, repetitive drumbeats, and head-flailing. Oh, and the wine. In copious quantities.
Outsiders called the rituals hedonism. But even then, the Cult would have it as a compliment. Madness was precisely what was lacking in Athens. Too many philosophers dissecting life. Embracing the chaos was far healthier than suppressing it.
The more convoluted city life became, the more the Cult sought the remedy of escape from it.
Maenads dominated the early rituals: enculturation repressed them even more than men. But soon all marginals– slaves, foreigners, the disabled– were welcomed. Costumes, masks, and sets intensified the experience. To lose the masks society imposed, artificial masks were worn.
Over the centuries, free-form deistic channeling grew into formalized art. Both endeavor to transcend civilization and its discontents.
During Pericles rule, the ritual culminated in Athens at a three-day festival, complete with award ceremony, and after parties. (See Plato’s Symposium)
The word entertainment is used now, but the essence of attending a movie or concert or play, is still in “escaping into oneness”. The Hero’s journey is universal, be it Odysseus or Bourne.
The Hollywood Bowl has it’s own fun in the woods history. It was The United Lodge of Theosophists, a group of religious philosophers (some say, a cult) deep into Brahmanism, who decided to stage a location specific production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The year was 1916.
The group did not want a traditional staging. Or audience. They were aiming for something more enlightened and the necessity of having to trek deep into unlit wilderness weeded out all but the most committed adventurous.
The production was was set along the hillsides and thickets of Beachwood Canyon. It was an underground success that inspired another production the following year: a religious pageant called Light of Asia, chronicling the life and labors of the Siddhartha.
Word of the show’s ethereal subject matter and mystical presentation spread like a fire, as did the interest in building a permanent theater outdoors.
As in Ancient Greece, dilettantes championed the cause. The heiress Christine Stevenson, one of Light of Asia’s producers, formed the non-profit Theatre Arts Alliance and purchased the entirety of The Daisy Dell, located in Bolton Canyon, now the Hollywood Bowl.
With the help of Charles Toberman, a developer whose trophies included The Roosevelt and Grauman’s Chinese Theater, the deal was sealed for under fifty thousand dollars. Toberman then donated surrounding lands in hopes of insuring the bucolic setting’s protection from future developers. He also spearheaded the thwarting of Mulholland Drive’s preferred route, which threatened to pass right through the dell in the early 1950’s.
The Bowl became an immediate destination for Angelenos, drawing thousands in its maiden season. But the venue was not without it’s deficiencies. As the largest natural amphitheater in the US, seating nearly 18,000, (the Odeon at the base of the Acropolis seats 14,000), the Bowl’s acoustics failed to satisfy conductors and audiophiles. Much has been spent over the decades to improve the sound quality of the band shell.
In 1927, architect Lloyd Wright, Frank’s least traumatized son, lent a Modern design to the shell, with unornamented concentric rings. Beautiful as it was, the curvilinear shape was far from acoustically ideal. As crowds grew and sat further up the hill the need for amplification became a necessity.
Frank Gehry tok a swing at the design in 1970 and had new issues to contend with, like ambient noise from the expanding Hollywood freeway, and the slowencroachment of residential development left unprotected by Toberman.
Collaborating with an acoustician, Gehry added “sonotubes” to the wings of the shell in hopes of bouncing the waves out. But the tubes prove ineffective and alter the shell’s trademark look. A decade later, after more money is raised, Gehry crafts another design, this time hanging fiberglass spheres in mathematically precise locations. It is an improvement, but doesn’t completely mitigate the problem.
In 1996, a proposition appears on the state ballot asking for voter funding to overhaul the shell once and for all. The proposition passes, but the Hollywood Historical Society, preferring form over function, sues to stop renovations. “It’s a dangerous set of precedents…” Says the Society’s president. “The door has been left open for the bulldozers.”
Fortunately, the Society loses the trial and is denied appeal by a music loving, wine drinking three-judge panel. It’s all for naught as new designers Hodgetts + Fung vastly improve the shell’s acoustical capacities while preserving, some say streamlining its look. The new sound system is praised the LA Times by and endorsed by the L.A. Philharmonic.
Every summer starting in June, Tuesday’s and Thursday’s are set aside for classical music ranging from High Baroque and Romantic to Modern and Contemporary. Entrance can be gained for as little as $8, and wine and picnics are encouraged. So eat and drink your face off.
Some interesting moments unfold. Be ready to take in more than the music. Once during a Wagner overture, two traffic helicopters passed overhead. Had the conductor secretly coordinated a sly referenceto Robert Duvall blasting Ride of The Valkeries in Apocalypse Now? Or was that shit just chance?
Listening to the symphonies in these circumstances is vacation. The only thing better would be time travel back to the 17th century for an authentic Grand Tour.