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New Shell Takes a Bow at the Bowl

The World

June 10, 2004|Sara Lin and Doug Smith | Times Staff Writer

Music returned to the Hollywood Bowl on Wednesday after eight months of construction replaced its 73-year-old hemispherical shell -- one of Los Angeles' most enduring images -- with a more spacious elliptical cover that delighted musicians but not some preservationists.

As construction workers fussed over the last details, Los Angeles Philharmonic trumpeter Boyde Hood sounded a fanfare, inaugurating the new shell.

"When I played the first note, I thought, 'Boy, this is nice,' " said Hood, who has been performing at the Bowl since the 1970s. "I felt like things are more open and you are not losing the sound."

The debut performance, an excerpt from a piece composed for the new facility, was attended by a select group of local politicians, county workers and reporters.

The first public event at the refurbished Bowl will be a free sneak peek Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. featuring small ensembles, food tasting and activities such as conducting contests. The summer concert season is set to begin June 25.

The $25-million renovation replaced the deteriorating 1929 shell with a much larger steel-frame structure that mimics the hallmark shape but seeks to improve the notoriously poor acoustics within the shell.

Gone are the Frank Gehry-designed balls that hung from the ceiling. Instead, the new shell has an "acoustic canopy" suspended over the stage like a giant halo. The plastic paneling of that canopy is intended to reflect the sound downward to help the orchestra hear itself.

After conducting a horn ensemble in a fanfare, Philharmonic Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen declared the project a success.

Although experts say the quality of the new acoustics can be judged only over time, Salonen said he immediately perceived an improvement.

"Before, the conductor had to use a microphone to speak to the orchestra," he said.

Like several of the musicians, Salonen also exulted in the 30% enlargement that will let the performers stretch out.

"It was like sardines, and sardines don't put on magnificent performances of Mahler symphonies," he said.

Preservationists who lost a two-year court fight to block the project were not consoled.

"This is something totally different and new," said Robert Nudelman, preservation director for Hollywood Heritage, the organization whose lawsuit held up the project for two years.

Lawrence Teeter, the lawyer who took the case to the state Supreme Court, compared the new projection screens and towering speakers to "a movie set for a space-age thriller." Its high-tech gadgetry is more conducive to pop and rock concerts than classical music, he said.

"I don't think this project furthers classical music at all," he said. "It was designed as a cash cow by the county, and the Philharmonic is along for the ride."

The shell whose passing he lamented was actually the fourth structure built in the natural amphitheater. The initial canvas-over-wood structure was replaced by a sweeping mural-enhanced arch that lasted only a year. It was followed by a sleek Moderne design.

The fourth shell became a symbol for Los Angeles as easily recognized as City Hall. It was the setting for such memorable events as Rachmaninoff's 1942 performance of his Second Piano Concerto and concerts by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix.

For some of the musicians who had endured its cramped space and poor acoustics, the new shell offered a pleasant surprise Wednesday.

Philharmonic French horn player Bill Lane walked onto the stage, his eyes widening.

"Oh, my gosh," Lane said. "I've been here 31 years, and it looks like the Bowl grew up. It's gigantic compared to the old one. This is beautiful."

Said fellow hornist Beth Cook-Shen: "You could fit three orchestras in here. We used to be cramped in the back of the stage."

To open the ceremony, Salonen conducted a 90-second excerpt from "Fanfare" by Los Angeles composer James Newton Howard. The full version will be premiered July 13 to open the Philharmonic's summer season.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who took the lead in pushing the publicly funded renovation, praised efforts by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn. and the county. He predicted the shell would last 100 years.

The Bowl "is a cultural gem," Yaroslavsky said. "It's a dynamic facility for the performing arts, and if it was to remain as such for the next generation, it needed some investment."

Philharmonic Assn. President Deborah Borda said the refurbished Bowl complemented the orchestra's new downtown home: "If Walt Disney Hall was meant to be our living room, this is the backyard where we're meant to play and relax."

Much had been said about the acoustical limitations of the old shell, prompting husband and wife team Hsin-Ming Fung and Craig Hodgetts to come up with the design for the canopy.

After analyzing acoustical studies and talking with acousticians, they hit upon the idea of a ring of plastic panels that could be easily adjusted depending on the type of group performing.

When Gehry designed the spheres hung above the stage in 1980, he meant them to help redistribute the sound. But Hodgetts said they "scattered sound every which way. What the louvers do is diffuse sound in an even way across the stage."

According to Fung, the canopy "works like a mirror." Adjusted to the right angle, "it picks up the voice of the choir or the orchestra and directs it out to the audience," she said.

At the close of the ceremony, Yaroslavsky used a giant pair of scissors to cut the red ribbon. The brass ensemble immediately began a second rendition of "Fanfare," ending with a series of pops that sent shiny streamers across the stage.

"I'm glad the tradition of the shell is still there," said trumpeter Hood. "It still looks like the Hollywood Bowl. I think we're very adaptable people as concertgoers. People who are going to come to the Bowl are going to sit down, and it's going to look much more beautiful and it's going to sound so much better."

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