Government steps in to try to quiet skies above Hollywood Bowl

Every night that there’s a concert at the Hollywood Bowl, its operator, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, sends beams of light into the sky above. The purpose isn’t to create a lot of showbiz hoopla, says Deborah Borda, the Philharmonic’s president and chief executive.

It’s to tell pilots of helicopters and small aircraft to stay the heck away. But increasingly, Borda says, attempts to communicate both in light and in words have fallen on deafening ears. Not a summer concert night goes by now, she says, without the purity of music falling prey to choppers dealing noise pollution.

“It’s always been a problem, but now it’s every concert. Not almost every concert, but every concert, multiple times. And it didn’t use to be,” Borda said Wednesday, a day after the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors gave its “amen” to a bill in Congress that’s asking the Federal Aviation Administration to intervene.

The bill by Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys) calls for new regulations “to reduce helicopter noise pollution in residential areas” countywide — with an exemption for emergency, law enforcement and military copters.


Borda said that Philharmonic officials didn’t directly ask Berman for help but had contacted Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky about the problem. Yaroslavksy introduced the motion that the supervisors passed this week to support the bill.

On its own, Borda said, the Philharmonic convenes a meeting each spring, inviting officials from the Professional Helicopter Pilots Assn. and other aviation interests to attend one of the orchestra’s rehearsals at the Bowl. The outing includes a prearranged helicopter flyover “so they can see how it’s totally disruptive.”

Borda said that in the last four years or so, the message just hasn’t been getting through. She estimates that on an average night, four or five helicopter flights disrupt the music. The effect down below: “On so many nights, you see people looking up and cursing under their breath, and there’s sort of a group groan. On a good night, you can get a collective groan of 18,000 people.”

On stage, the conductors and musicians soldier on, Borda said, “but when they come off they speak about it. They literally can’t hear themselves sometimes.”

The most overt statement happened on July 30, 1985, when a hovering helicopter prompted Michael Tilson Thomas to stop conducting a quiet passage of the second movement of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 and walk offstage. Some 450 instrumentalists and singers and 9,804 ticket-holders waited a half-hour before the copter left and Tilson Thomas returned to finish the concert.

The culprit, according to The Times review of that evening by the late Daniel Cariaga, was a lone police helicopter that had been pursuing a suspect.

(In some versions of the telling, Tilson Thomas broke his baton in anger before making his exit. Cariaga mentioned no visible demonstration of ire, writing that the conductor “did not glower, or curse the skies, as some other conductors have done at Hollywood Bowl. He didn’t halt the performance and give a speech.... He simply left the stage.”)

As for the past season, reviews by Times critic Mark Swed noted that “the infernal helicopters that brazenly buzz the Bowl seemed [on the night of Aug. 2] like long-necked paparazzi wanting a good look” at pianist Yuja Wang’s now-famous skimpy orange dress and that Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko’s July 26 attempt to convey the “miraculous wisps of sound” in Sibelius’ Second Symphony was undone by “this summer’s plague of pesky helicopters obnoxiously clattering overhead, as if pretending to be warplanes attacking music.”

Borda also worries about what could happen if something went mechanically awry with a helicopter hovering over a packed Bowl. It’s not just a hypothetical: In a 1987 interview, John McElhinney, a longtime pilot and traffic reporter for KMPC, recalled experiencing “sheer terror” when “I had a mechanical problem one time over the Hollywood Bowl and made a forced landing in the Universal Studio parking lot.”

Are the relevant authorities listening?

Berman patterned his bill after an amendment passed this year by the U.S. Senate, authorizing the FAA to draft regulations for helicopter noise abatement over Long Island, N.Y.

Responding with a written statement to a Times inquiry, the FAA said Wednesday that it “works with helicopter operators and community groups around the country to find ways for these aircraft to operate safely and with minimal community noise impacts.”

The helicopter pilots’ association, meanwhile, has cautioned that shunting their aircraft into restricted flight paths for the sake of sparing eardrums below “could substantially decrease safety when many different aircraft types, which travel at different speeds, are no longer separated but are pushed closer together in the airspace.”

Elsewhere in L.A. County, the most frequent disrupters of outdoor concerts are the screeching peacocks who reside at the Los Angeles County Arboretum, summer home of the California Philharmonic (and as of next summer, the Pasadena Pops).

“I’d trade those for the helicopters any day,” Borda said.