Free Hollywood Bowl rehearsals are best bargain in L.A.

Bowl rehearsal
Going to the Hollywood Bowl is famous for its casual vibe. Going to the Bowl for a Tuesday or Thursday morning rehearsal is even more casual. And it’s free. Here, Michael Tilson Thomas rehearses the L.A. Philharmonic on July 9.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Life is usually such a struggle for me. I get foreplay confused with afterplay; I get tofu confused with cheese.

Yet, when I stumble across one of L.A.'s ultimate bargains, I am quick to share. This is such a one-way relationship, you and I. Just the way you like it.

So today we’re leaving the suburbs for the best free activity in Los Angeles, a sort of spiritual rehab, Botox for your troubled soul. Here, L.A.'s most-accomplished musicians serenade you, directed by celebrity conductors. Parking is gratis.

Morning rehearsals at the Hollywood Bowl, free and open to the public.


There, I’ve said it. It’s out there, the scoop of a lifetime — the Hollywood Bowl on summer mornings. Let’s see the Drudge Report top this one.

Now, some composers write thunderstorms; others write rain. This morning, we’re listening to a little of both, Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, a bipolar piece of work that incorporates vocalists, a choir, tractor sounds and actual birdsong from the trees surrounding the stage.

Yep, maybe nothing’s better than a wine-infused picnic at the Bowl on a soft July night, unless it’s this free morning at the Bowl. A mere 30 people are here, in the box seats in the shade of the light tower. One lady knits slippers. A gentleman reads his Time.

Speaking of magazines, Esquire’s most recent issue claims that Angelenos need to make $350,000 a year to afford the lifestyle Americans would consider successful — the big house, the right wheels.


But any definition of “successful” should also include little respites like mornings at the Bowl. There are, all around us, the smiles of this micro-audience, many of them regulars and the kind of people you like to sit with on planes. Smarter than average. Wry. Not overbearing.

I want to marry these people, but I don’t have the closet space. For now we’ll just date.

“I’ve been coming here 10 years,” says Barbara Wilks of the morning rehearsals. “I saw Diana Krall. I saw Tony Bennett.”

On this day, Michael Tilson Thomas is leading the L.A. Philharmonic in a rehearsal of Mahler’s many-layered symphony. Without a huge crowd to muffle it, the high sounds ping even more clearly, the sonorous low registers growl a tad longer. In the trees, the birds sing, like an extra section of piccolos.

“Be real firm about it,” Tilson Thomas tells the musicians on one passage.

The Bowl is probably our greatest landmark anyway, rimmed with live oak, black sage, sugarbush. At night, scavengers climb the hillside to watch shows from the limbs of sycamores.

“How’re the folks in the trees doing?” Bette Midler called out from the stage one evening.

And they cheered.


Big place, bigger lore. Billie Holiday, Judy Garland and the Beatles have all performed here. Frank Lloyd Wright’s son designed two of the early band shells.

Why PBS or some other network doesn’t televise a summer concert series from this national treasure is beyond me. This season, performers are as varied as Queen Latifah and Itzhak Perlman. Year in and year out, the Bowl offers one of the most eclectic lineups of any American stage.

But it’s the mornings we’re talking about now, how the county of Los Angeles opens the Bowl to the public — not just for the classical rehearsals on Tuesdays and Thursdays but daily to workout enthusiasts looking for stairs and solitude.

“I come here with my morning coffee and my eggs whites,” says West Hollywood resident Kim Abbadini, who jogs here three or four days a week. “It’s a hidden gem.”

This is one of those places — like a Dodgers game, like the Santa Monica Pier — I like to bring out-of-town guests. The essence of L.A. seems burnished in this rugged canyon, the world-class combo of nature and urban thrills that makes our city our city.

So pack your bagel, grab a friend, bring a big delicious book. Breakfast at the Bowl, in the town of no free lunches, remains the best bargain ever.


Los Angeles Philharmonic open rehearsals

Where: Hollywood Bowl
When: 9 a.m. to noon Tuesdays and Thursdays. Rehearsals on other days are open only at the discretion of the artist. Rehearsal schedules are released on Mondays.
Cost: Free