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A Bowl full of changes

Times Staff Writer

On a recent Saturday night as the sky grew dark over the Hollywood Bowl and a power outage snarled traffic on Highland Avenue, attendants stacked the last arriving cars in the parking lots. The electronic marquee beamed its shimmering advertisements, while a scalper approached a couple walking toward the entrance. At one of the turnstiles, a man wrestled with a large, blue cooler before letting go: Ice, wine and beer bottles rolled down the hill while he looked on, dejected.

Inside, an entrepreneurial Bowl bartender was selling more than just popcorn and beer. Styrofoam cups lined on the counter offered kisses for $1, Reiki healing for 75 cents, psychic readings for $1, advice for $5. (No takers.) Ushers called out: “30 seconds to show start.” A straggler, finishing his cigarette, rushed in as the orchestra began the national anthem. A hush fell over the crowd, and another night of music at the Bowl began.

To some, the Bowl is a schmaltzy venue -- home of the singalong -- with bad acoustics. For others, going to the Bowl is an ordeal -- between tickets and traffic, it is just too involved. And still others can’t get through those hot summer nights without escaping to their bench or box in the hills.

Last year, more than 740,000 people (up from the previous year) made their way to this natural amphitheater, which has framed much of the musical history of the city. In 1942, Vladimir Horowitz performed Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, after which the composer walked on stage and told him this was how he had dreamed it should be played. The following year, Frank Sinatra was the first pop singer to appear. The Beatles performed for 18,000 screaming fans in ’64. The next year, Bob Dylan made his debut, followed by the Rolling Stones, the Doors and Jimi Hendrix. And in 1979, the Playboy Jazz Festival was inaugurated, attracting artists such as Miles Davis.

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But more recently, the Bowl has struggled to change with the times, to remain a competitive force. If the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall (set to open this fall) is the face of the city’s musical future, the Bowl is an anchor to the past.

The first stage was created in 1919 as a community park and arts center. In the ‘20s, four band shells were constructed -- three were demolished before the current shell went up in 1929. And the current shell has been modified over time including twice by Gehry, adding “sonotubes” in the 1970s and spheres in 1980 to try to enhance the sound. Still the acoustic problems persisted, and a new design by prominent local architecture firm Hodgetts + Fung was approved a few years back. After two years of delays, as conservationists fought the change and arguments made their way through the courts, construction on a new Hollywood Bowl shell will begin this fall.

As soon as this season ends, the current shell will be taken apart. A $25-million refurbishment is designed to mitigate some of the Bowl’s sound problems with a new shell and an expanded stage. Already, $25 million has been spent on upgrading the venue for patrons, building escalators, updating access for the disabled and improving restrooms. And if all goes according to plan, this new shell -- a half ellipse rather than a half circle -- will be ready for the next season. Will the Bowl feel new and vibrant again?

A night at the Bowl is all about crowds -- those who work, those who perform and those who listen. Much of an audience’s experience is orchestrated by Paul Geller, a tall 45-year-old who at the moment is standing onstage a few hours before the first artists go on, pointing to holes and cracks in the shell.

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“We patched and painted wherever we could,” says Geller, the production director who oversees the logistics on and behind the stage. But Band-Aids and glue will no longer do the job. “If it wasn’t for the termites holding hands, the place would fall apart.”

Geller, who has worked here for 33 years, grew up with the Bowl. His father was the assistant concertmaster for 49 years, and as a child Geller roamed the hills while the orchestra practiced. At age 12, he got his first job as a runner. Geller remembers the reflecting pool in front of the stage. When it got hot during rehearsals, the crew would jump in the water to cool off. He also remembers Ella Fitzgerald singing to the audience, as the moon flooded the hills with white light.

Much has changed since the first official season in 1922. With the construction of the Staples Center and other large Southern California concert venues, there’s more competition for the big acts. Traffic has increased -- on the freeway and overhead -- further reducing the quality of the sound. And, says Geller, people don’t care as much about what’s onstage. “It used to be all about the music,” he says. Now, “people come to have dinner and there just happens to be” a performance.

Case in point: Lynn Klinenberg is looking for her lettuce. It goes with the salmon, arranged on silver she’s brought from her house in Beverly Hills. Wearing pearls, slacks and a cardigan, she crouched on the ground in a pool-circle box near the stage, searching her picnic basket. Klinenberg didn’t come for this Sunday’s afro beat celebration for the deceased Nigerian artist Fela Kuti but for the experience. “I love the bowl,” she says, searching in vain for the salad.

“Our friends said, ‘A barking dog could be up there and it would still be great,’ ” says Amy Gordon, a 36-year-old technical editor who is sitting nearby with her parents, Sonny Gordon, a 65-year-old film and TV writer; Heidi Gordon, a 56-year-old office manager; and their friend, Jennifer Lee, a 37-year-old designer. They are in the middle of dinner: rosemary chicken, asparagus, cheese, strawberries and white wine.

Food at the Bowl runs the gamut, from hot dogs to gourmet. In between is a range of Patina services, including the market, a take-away and a rooftop restaurant. (Around town, supermarkets such as Ralphs and Bristol Farms offer pre-packed Bowl picnic baskets.) And, of course, people bring their own food. Past the garden boxes, approaching the top, Trader Joe’s bags outnumber Patina take-away.

For Gordon, this is the third show of the season. For her parents, this is the third show -- this week. As Heidi Gordon puts it: “I could not get through those hot summer evenings without coming here.”

It costs at least $75,000 just to open the doors at the Bowl on a Saturday. That’s the closest Deborah Borda, the director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn., which leases the venue from Los Angeles County, will come to discussing the costs of running it. (The Phil pays a “facility fee” to the county -- 5% of each ticket goes to a fund which helps defray the cost of maintenance and operating the park.) While the Phil plays about 30 concerts during the Bowl’s season -- which runs from late June to late September -- the programming philosophy, according to Steven Linder, manager of artistic planning, is to “be as much as we can to as many people as we can.”

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Planning is done by committee, a year in advance, piecing together an elaborate puzzle in which performers’ schedules and dates are mixed and matched. It all begins with Esa-Pekka Salonen. He and the Los Angeles Philharmonic get first dibs on what they’ll play and when.

“If they’re performing Tchaikovsky -- I’m not,” says John Mauceri, director of the Bowl’s resident orchestra. Since 1991 he has conducted the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra in more than 260 concerts in the hills.

When Salonen’s season is set, Mauceri, who wears rich colorful ties and a big mane of white hair, picks his. The challenge, he says, is reinventing tradition, balancing change and continuity. This year, the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra got to play Tchaikovsky as well as Ravel’s Bolero. The innovation? Ravel got fireworks.

Audiences who come to the Bowl “are predisposed to like what you’re giving them,” says Mauceri. “They’ve already extended their hand.”

The remainder of the schedule is decided by Linder in consultation with Tom Schnabel of KCRW-FM (89.9), the world music advisor, and Dianne Reeves, the Phil’s creative chair for jazz, as well as its programming staff.

There are fewer world premieres these days, acknowledges Borda, but she adds: “We have a responsibility to present accessible programming.”

The most popular nights at the Bowl are Fridays and Saturdays, the “Weekend Spectaculars” series that this year includes performances by Tony Bennett and the Peking acrobats. Wednesday jazz nights, and the world music series on Sundays, are the second most popular nights. The easiest nights to get tickets for are Tuesdays and Thursdays, when the classical series is performed. Depending on the program, ticket prices range from $1 to $240. And who’s buying? The average age of a subscriber is close to 57; 48 for a single ticket buyer, according to the Phil.

Selling out a venue that seats close to 18,000 every night of the summer is not easy. And few venues in the country compare in size and operation. Tanglewood is one. Owned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, it seats up to 20,000 people and has a program that is focused on classical music with a jazz festival to close the season.

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In a room underneath the shell, Ed Tom, director of operations, is surrounded by video cameras that he controls from a panel on his desk, panning the crowd for anything that might need his attendance: an accident, a skirmish or a logjam on the adjoining parking lot.

On a given night, more than 300 people work on-site: musicians, ushers, parking attendants, bus drivers and stagehands. There’s even a music librarian marking up the score for the next performance.

Tom, who wears a jacket and tie even on a hot summer night, is the general of logistics. The 47-year-old seems to know the name of every employee. On this Saturday, as people file out to their cars after the show, traffic is worse than usual, and Tom goes to visit the local traffic gods.

As he walks down the sloping hill toward the exit, a woman slips and knocks her head. Medics are called. Tom keeps walking, pointing out a bearded preacher with a megaphone standing near the box office plaza -- John, who has practiced his freedom of speech at the Bowl for 20 years. At the bottom of the hill, there are a couple of officers trying to manage the traffic -- thousands of cars pouring out onto Highland Avenue, which is already at a standstill. Now an ambulance and two firetrucks are attempting to get through.

Inside the Hollywood Bowl sign on Highland, bowl employee Mario Osorio and traffic officer Gary Harper are trying to get the ambulance through the gridlock. During shows at the Bowl, they control two of the busiest traffic lights in Hollywood.

Climbing the steep stairs, Tom reaches the top platform of the sign, gently teasing them both, before repeating his Hollywood Bowl mantra, “Leave the driving to us.” He points to the buses parked in the middle of the avenue, set aside for the Bowl by the city -- some shuttle visitors from nearby parking lots, others make stops throughout the city.

“On July 4th weekend,” he says, “we had 123 buses.”

Some nights at the Bowl work better than others. When the Phil and the Pacific Chorale performed the score to “The Blue Planet,” a BBC/Discovery documentary, nearly 11,000 people came. Composer George Fenton conducted that night, while Ed Begley Jr., actor and ubiquitous environmentalist, introduced the music. The film was projected onto screens near the stage.

It was a family evening, and children stretched to see dolphins playing. From the cheapest seats, the dolphins looked like spinning sardines. In the most expensive seats too it was difficult to see the screens overhead. Instead, diners could watch on small TV monitors at their tables. Later, as killer whales tore apart a cuddly-looking sea lion on screen and the water filled with blood, some children didn’t see anything at all as parents shielded their eyes.

On Sunday night, the program is afro beat.

“It’s a different crowd,” Tom says, “younger and not so familiar with the Bowl.” At 8 p.m., an hour into the show, there is still a line at the box office.

Inside, sitting in a garden box with his wife and two friends, Ness Hamaoui, a 35-year-old with sunglasses in his dark, foppish hair, has popped open the Veuve Clicquot. A real estate broker, he appreciates the personal space that the box offers. “But it’s also fun sitting up there, with people dancing,” says his 31-year-old wife, Liz, who is wearing a pink tube top.

Hamaoui originally got the box for the classical night series but has “switched it up a little.” Now the couple comes for jazz and world music. It’s about the picnic, the hills and the history, he says. It’s about a tradition. “I’d hate for them to make it into a Staples Center.”

During the break, waiters who serve the pool boxes rush in and out of the kitchen underneath the shell, almost colliding with musicians on their break passing a Blue Shark -- an azure vodka drink -- between them.

Mitchell Newman, a first violinist who has been with the Philharmonic for 16 years, says in the current shell, the members of the orchestra can’t hear themselves play. It’s an issue.

“We need to play our parts, not only with people in our section, but with what’s going on with the soloist,” says Newman.

The French horn players sitting at the back may need to listen to something the cellos are doing. “If they can’t hear the cellist, it makes it very difficult for them to hear what they have to do,” he says.

Still, for the Philharmonic’s musicians, it’s more relaxed here than downtown -- which has meant the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. (The Phil takes up residence in Disney Hall in October.)

“Occasionally, the planes flying over and the bottles rolling down the hill can be annoying, but that’s just part of the summer atmosphere,” he says. “We try to handle those situations lightheartedly.” Besides the repertoire is usually familiar so “there’s a lot more spontaneity on stage, which is fun.”

When the Philharmonic is playing, orchestra members arrive in the morning. “You hear birds and see a hawk flying around and deer or a little family of skunks, it really gives a little shot of inspiration during rehearsals -- a connection to nature.” The evenings can be inspirational too.

“The moon comes out and it’s just a very charming and special place,” says Newman. “You’re right in the middle of a busy city and yet you feel for two or three hours that you’re in a different place: the colors, the trees and the shape of the Bowl.”

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Music critic Mark Swed says ...

A loaf of bread, a jug of wine and thou are more than welcome. So are champagne and beer. Patina runs the food service, and chef Joachim Splichal probably has better name recognition than many of the performers. That’s the order of things these days -- more attention paid to dinner and drink than to Dvorak. Of course, it’s pretty hard to lose yourself in the music given the immensity of the amphitheater, the distractions of the outdoors and the vagaries of amplified sound. But it’s not impossible, and a few precautions help. Go when Esa-Pekka Salonen is conducting. Choose what you want to hear by what is being played in the second half -- the sound is always better after intermission. Bring a sweater.

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Pop critic Robert Hilburn adds ...

Pop-rock fans have loved the Hollywood Bowl since the Beatles played there in the ‘60s. Musicians share the feeling. Coldplay’s Chris Martin said it was a dream come true to play the Bowl because of its history. Could there be anything better for a pop fan than a good night at the Bowl? Well, yes. Many more good pop nights. There are marvelous ones this summer: contemporary shows produced by Andrew Hewitt and Bill Silva Presents (including Coldplay, Radiohead and R.E.M.) and world music shows produced by the Philharmonic in conjunction with KCRW-FM (89.9) (the Los Lobos package). But there aren’t enough. Instead of the tired weekend “pops” events, modernize the schedule to better reflect the currents in contemporary music.

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Season highlights

Pop

Los Lobos, Cafe Tacuba, Kinky, Sept. 7

Jazz

The Oscar Peterson Quartet, Dianne Reeves, John Clayton,

Aug. 27

Classical

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Philharmonic in a program that includes Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, Sept. 11

Weekend

The Peking Acrobats,

Sept. 12, 13, 14

Info: (323) 850-2000 or www.hollywoodbowl.com

Louise Roug can be contacted at louise.roug@latimes.com.


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