Magazine article The New Yorker

Under the Stars

Magazine article The New Yorker

Under the Stars

Article excerpt


The Hollywood Bowl gets a digital upgrade. The amphitheatre, seen in 1927, had a populist philosophy from the outset.

When an orchestra plays outdoors, you have the sense, on the best nights, that it has been released back into the wild. The stiff ceremony that has fastened itself to classical music in the past century recedes. Spurious rules about when to applaud are relaxed. Crowds are generally bigger, more youthful, more ethnically diverse. Veteran concertgoers may be reminded of a bygone age when the art form had a more vital place in mainstream culture than it does now. Witness the scene in the 1944 film noir "Double Indemnity" in which Walter Neff--the downward-spiralling insurance salesman played by Fred MacMurray--spends an evening in the hills above the Hollywood Bowl, conversing uneasily with the young daughter of the man he has murdered. Floating up from the orchestra shell are the strains of Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony, brooding over a desperate man's predicament. No culture gap is apparent: Schubert writes the soundtrack to the seething L.A. night.

We're told that obstacles both financial and psychological stop people from venturing into the concert hall. Tickets are too expensive; a veneer of elitism keeps the ne'er-do-well insurance man and the roller-skating teen-ager at bay. When the New York Philharmonic plays for free before tens of thousands in Central Park, critics and professionals invariably wonder what it would take to bring the same crowd to Avery Fisher Hall or to the Met--whose present labor-management crisis is related to a sudden plunge in attendance. Lower ticket prices would certainly help, although the mental barrier might be even stronger. I attended several concerts by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Bowl this summer, and one night I bought an eight-dollar ticket for the benches at the top of the hill, just below where Walter Neff and Lola Dietrichson had their Schubertian chat. Up there, the audience was more varied than down below: I heard Spanish and English spoken in equal measure. Yet most of the benches were empty.

Much is also lost when music goes outdoors. For decades, P.A. systems have readily delivered earthshaking volume, but clarity and warmth are a different matter. Classical instruments, especially strings, turn fuzzy and indistinct; the bass has an artificial throb; fortissimos splinter into distortion. The resulting sound may, in decibel terms, be louder than what you hear in the concert hall, but the impact is less substantial. The precious phenomenon of resonance goes missing: you aren't enveloped by the music as it bounces off surfaces all around you. And the softest timbres disappear into the noise of the night: the ex-nihilo opening of Beethoven's Ninth may be drowned out by crickets.

Technological solutions are at hand. Many orchestras go outdoors in the summer--the N.Y. Phil, the L.A. Phil, the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood, and the Chicago Symphony at Ravinia, among others--and some are turning to digital P.A. systems that capture more of the richness of instrumental sound. The industry standard is the SoundScape in the plaza outside the New World Center, in Miami: a forest of Meyer Sound speakers simulates the sonic architecture of the hall's interior. Last year, the Bowl was outfitted with a system by the French company L'Acoustics, which, if not as spectacular as the Miami setup, improves greatly on what came before. Usually, I'm reluctant to judge an ensemble on the basis of outdoor appearances, but the L.A. Phil concerts I heard at the Bowl afforded a clear picture: the orchestra is increasingly secure across all sections, while its superstar music director--Gustavo Dudamel--has yet to realize fully his tremendous potential.

The Bowl occupies a natural amphitheatre in the chaparral-covered Hollywood Hills, about a mile north of the Chinese Theatre. It was founded just after the end of the First World War, its philosophy unconventional from the outset. …

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