Arts life: Los Angeles Just as London has its proms and Rome has its outdoor opera, Los Angeles has made the summer Bowl season a landmark event.
LA's flair for the dramatic
Summer in Los Angeles means music under the stars. It means, specifically, the cream of the world's classical, jazz, rock and world musicians playing their hearts out in one of the city's most spectacular venues, the Hollywood Bowl, where the shows begin with the sun setting over the mountains and often end with an explosion of fireworks. Just as London has its proms at the Royal Albert Hall, and Rome has its outdoor opera at the Baths of Caracalla, Los Angeles has made the summer Bowl season a landmark event, the very best of the city displayed with an unmistakable flair for the dramatic. The setting, a natural hollow just a little to the west of the Hollywood sign, is unbeatable, the temperatures - thanks to the mountains - usually stay pleasantly balmy, and the musicians are never less than first-rate.
The Bowl is the summer home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra, which means a strong line-up of classical music - this year, Mahler's Eighth Symphony, Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, Holst's The Planets, a concert performance of Carmen, and many others. The attitude is informal, and the conductor will often take time to crack jokes and explain the music in easily accessible terms. Also dropping in, though, is an eclectic crowd ranging from Brazilian bossa nova artists to Wynton Marsalis and Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder and Radiohead, by way of Thievery Corporation, Diana Ross and Gnarls Barkley. Some of them borrow the symphony orchestra to amplify their own sound; some don't.
Almost more significant than the music, though, is the communal experience of trekking up the Cahuenga Pass with a picnic and sharing it with friends and accidental neighbours sitting with you on the stone amphitheatre steps. In a city often painfully divided by social class and racial background, the Bowl is one of the few events in the city's life when everybody's differences become a cause for celebration.
That might explain why the season has grown ever more popular - as reflected in the ever mounting prices. You used to be able to sit high up in the nosebleed seats for just $1 (Dh3.6) a ticket. (Meanwhile those with money, or a real passion for the music, or both, paid hundreds of dollars for boxes with actual wooden chairs right up against the stage.) Now those same nosebleed seats go for $10 (Dh36) each - still a bargain, and arguably the very place to soak up the atmosphere, even if the music gets a little fuzzy.
The honest truth, in fact, is that the music is a little bit fuzzy everywhere. The Bowl organisers have no choice but to amplify the sound with microphones and speakers, which is a turn-off for the purists. And the acoustics, while pretty good for an outdoor setting, are far from the sharpest. Like so much of Los Angeles, the experience is most certainly flawed. Just travelling to the Bowl can be a reminiscent of Dante's tour through the depths of hell and up Mount Purgatory, as the freeways are invariably clogged in the evening rush hour, the final approach to the Bowl is bumper to bumper, and the parking is both expensive and barely adequate to cover the Bowl's 18,000 capacity.
Just as the Bowl has helped LA discover its own civic sense, it has also been a pioneer, though, in helping the crowds figure out alternatives to the almighty automobile. The smartest audience members take the park-and-ride buses that come in from all over the city in the two hours before the show starts, which not only alleviates the grief of rush hour but means they are often back home while the poor motorists are still stuck in the exit line at the car park.
The rest of the city is slowly catching on - Dodger Stadium, the city's equally congested baseball venue, just started a park-and-ride service this year.