Music in the Air : Whether It’s Symphonies Under Stars or Sun, Angelenos Cast Their Votes for Outdoor Concerts

Times Staff Writer

As the orchestra launched into George Gershwin’s Concerto in F a few summers ago at the outdoor Redlands Bowl, a dog ran onto the stage and stared at the pianist.

The musicians in the Bowl Orchestra also are warned to steel themselves against cats that occasionally wander across the stage--or crickets that can all but drown them out.

Nor are animals the only threat to a successful outdoor concert or performance. Musicians say that heat can cause a violin to become unglued and humidity can create moisture, which makes strings slippery.


Yet performers and concertgoers are more than willing to endure possible glitches to be part of outdoor concerts in the Los Angeles area. From Redlands to Whittier to Laguna to Beverly Hills, hundreds of thousands of Angelenos each summer attend classical music performances under the sun or stars. And there is a reason.

“It’s like going out and experiencing nature and music and food and drink at the same time, which is not a normal thing for a concert,” said Daniel Rothmuller, associate principal cellist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, describing his experience playing at Hollywood Bowl and attending concerts there.

‘Out There to Have a Good Time’

“The ambiance is so different from the formality of the concert hall, where you see everybody in suits and ties,” Rothmuller said. “You walk out at the Bowl and you see all those boxes and colorful tablecloths and people are out there to have a good time and they are very relaxed. . . .

“There’s also an aesthetic magic about being under the stars. I guess the only way I can say it is that you see the moon and it’s beautiful. It’s kind of a hush that comes over the whole audience when darkness finally comes. In a concert hall, you’re aware of almost every cough, but in the Bowl you don’t seem to notice things.”

About 70 miles east of Hollywood Bowl, Harley Tillitt, a retired U.S. Navy mathematician who lives in Redlands, offers similar reasons for attending the Redlands Bowl.

He said going to the indoor symphony is a “whole different situation. We have reserved seats and you get in there and ‘play like’ you like to listen to Mahler’s symphony even though it takes about 1 1/2 hours.”

But when Tillitt goes to the Redlands Bowl: “The stars are overhead, the flags are flying and you see your neighbor down the way. It’s kind of like being on a picnic with music or maybe ballet.”

The Redlands Bowl, which Tillitt first attended 50 years ago, is one of the oldest outdoor concert spots in Southern California. The sloped, concrete, 4,500-seat amphitheater was started in 1923 by Redlands resident Grace Mullen and is celebrating its 65th anniversary.

Mullen’s project was inspired when she fled the hot Redlands summer and visited the then-new Hollywood Bowl, said Conant Halsey, chairman of the board of the Redlands Community Music Assn. Inc., which runs the Redlands Bowl.

“The Redlands area didn’t have much in the way of cultural advantages,” Halsey said. “She and others could go to Los Angeles for ballets and symphonies but local people couldn’t afford it. She wanted to provide classical and cultural entertainment for people in the area.”

To provide that artistry, Mullen and future managers of the Bowl developed a sharp eye for young talent. Over the years the youthful performers who appeared at the Redlands Bowl included Leontyne Price, Shirley Verrett, Jerome Hines, John Charles Thomas, Isaac Stern, Andre Previn and Ferde Grofe.

Performers such as these have drawn crowds reaching 6,000, including spectators sitting on the grass near the seats. This year, music lovers can see nine classical concerts, opera or ballet, and, in keeping with Mullen’s original policy, no concertgoer will pay a cent for admission.

The Community Music Assn. raises nearly $200,000 to underwrite the entire summer concert schedule, classical and popular. The association holds a fund-raising drive before the summer schedule begins and passes the hat at performances, where the most common individual contribution is $1.

For those who like their music outdoors but who break out in hives at the thought of battling freeway traffic all the way to Redlands, there are closer and less unnerving possibilities.

In Orange County, the Pacific Symphony will present a new five-concert evening series at the 15,000-seat Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre in Laguna Hills. The concerts, including one conducted by Morton Gould, will be performed alongside acres of picnic grounds for families.

“We’re hoping that this will be an alternative to Hollywood Bowl,” said Louis G. Spisto, executive director of the Pacific Symphony. “It’s a big trip, especially for people who live in the southern part of the county, to drive all the way to Hollywood.

“We think people who have been to Hollywood Bowl will notice the ease of not having to fight for a picnic space. It’s also not in the middle of the city. It’s surrounded by countryside, so it’s an ideal environment to enjoy classical music.”

Still closer to home, aficionados can enjoy music outdoors at several locations.

Those who dread Hollywood Bowl crowds can venture across the Hollywood Freeway to the 1,400-seat, open-air John Anson Ford Theater. The world-renowned Bartok Quartet of Hungary will perform there on three Monday evenings in July.

In a more exotic setting, the courtyard of the 55-room Doheny Mansion in Greystone Park, Beverly Hills, the Beverly Hills Symphony or the Stuttgart Piano Trio will play on three summer weekends. Those attending these events in the hillside setting above Sunset Boulevard may also tour the grounds of the home built by oilman Edward Doheny in 1928. Opportunities to hear the performances are limited, however, because only 400 seats are available.

Even fewer seats, about 100, are offered for evening concerts on three weekends in late August and early September at the Fritz Feld Community Playhouse in Brentwood.

Feld, 87, who appeared as a supporting actor in more than 425 movies, takes a leading role in staging plays and concerts at the hillside theater.

The outdoor events are offered free to the public by the sponsoring Crestwood Hills Assn., so spectators often donate $1.

The sponsors are able to put on free events because the artists work for nothing. In gratitude, Feld said, he and his neighbors sometimes repair to their homes following the concerts and entertain the performers until 3 or 4 a.m. Some of the refreshments are prepared by Feld’s wife, Virginia Christine, the Mrs. Olson of Folger’s coffee commercials.

“It’s a very festive situation in our home,” Feld said. “They play the piano, they dance, they make music and they’re fun.”

Free Classical Concert

In a more somber setting, Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier will present a free classical concert each Sunday afternoon in September. The performances are designed “to familiarize people with Rose Hills” and each event attracted about 90 people last summer.

Concerts such as these succeed in part because musicians who play outdoors say they feel the same “anticipation and responsibility” to their art as those who perform indoors.

“You never get quite used to seeing those 17,000 seats and you want to reach that last row. You’re aware you have a big house to project to,” Rothmuller said.

“If you talk about Hollywood Bowl, you’ve got 20,000 seats. It’s a huge venue,” said David Bendett, executive director of the Santa Monica Symphony.

“The only way you can get the sound from the stage all the way to the back row is by amplifying it. Symphonic music is just not made for that. You can do it, but it’s not as good as hearing it in a 2,000- or 3,000-seat auditorium.”

Even when they have amplification, conductors often arrange loud programs outdoors. “They like to put in things like the ‘1812' Overture or other works by Tchaikovsky, which are very bombastic, because brass instruments travel further,” Bendett said.

Like the musicians, some spectators also sense that classical music loses something when performed in large outdoor amphitheaters, but they find other satisfactions.

“I think basically it’s a way to experience a harmony of people united with the experience of good food, good wine and bad music,” said Bob Perry, the vice president of a Santa Monica production company.

“I find that the attempts (at Hollywood Bowl) to do classical music usually fail. You end up having a Piper Cub fly through Mahler’s Fifth. . . .

“The Bowl is at its best when it really goes after spectacle,” Perry said. “It’s the last place in Los Angeles where spectacle, theater and music are linked together.

“From watching the emergence of a great luminous orb to watching it being slowly populated with guys in white jackets who somehow make beautiful music together, it’s magical. It’s a wonderful convergence of land, air, time of day and people and music.”

Here is a list of some of the classical music concerts that will be performed outdoors in Southern California this summer:

John Anson Ford Theater, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood. July 11, 18, 25. (213) 850-2000.

Beverly Hills Summer Concerts, (Doheny mansion) Greystone Park, 905 Loma Vista Drive, Beverly Hills. June 26; July 30, 31, Aug. 28. (213) 550-4864.

Santa Monica Symphony Chamber Concerts at Palisades Park. Corner Ocean Avenue and Broadway, Santa Monica. May 22, June 15, 19. (213) 278-5657.

Crestwood Hills Assn., Fritz Feld Community Playhouse, 1000 Hanley Ave., Brentwood. Aug 19-20, 26-27; Sept. 2-3. (213) 472-5290.

Hollywood Bowl Summer Festival, Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood; Tuesday and Thursday evenings and some Sunday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday classical performances between July 3 and Sept. 17. (213) 850-2000.

Rose Hills Memorial Park Concerts, 3900 S. Workman Mill Road, Whittier. Sept. 4, 11, 18, 25. (213) 699-0921.

Irvine Meadows Summer Series, Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, 8808 Irvine Center Drive, Laguna Hills; July 4, July 16, Aug. 6, Aug. 27 and Sept. 10. (714) 973-1300.

Redlands Bowl Summer Music Festival. Beyond Brookside Avenue between Eureka and Grant streets. July 8, 12, 15, 19, 22, 26; Aug 9, 19, 26. (714) 793-7316.