LA Philharmonic experiments with new web series shot at empty Hollywood Bowl

The LA Philharmonic hasn’t had an audience since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of the musicians wear a mask, playing six feet away from each other. The woodwind and horn sections are behind plexiglass. It’s a lot different from the side-by-side, packed stage audiences are used to. 

The LA Phil won’t hold live performances until at least June 2021. But you can now virtually watch them play at the Hollywood Bowl. The new series is called SOUND/STAGE.

Each week there’s a different program. Gustavo Dudamel conducts Gustav Mahler one week, and Jazz composer Kamasi Washington performs another week. Other musicians include Chicano Batman and Andra Day. There’s also poetry, dance, film and conversations. 

New Yorker music critic Alex Ross attended two days of a SOUND/STAGE recording in August. He just published “Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music,” a new book about composer Richard Wagner. 

“You realize how much you miss through the community of musicians looking at each other and playing together,” says Ross. “The spirit of the orchestra is more than the sum of each individual person's talent.”

Musicians often use body language to communicate with one another onstage, and playing far apart can become disorienting. But Ross says the LA Philharmonic has found ways to communicate around the plexiglass shields and distance.

Cellist Ben Hong described the performances to Ross as better than usual because the musicians felt more alert and more exposed: “Looking out and seeing nobody in the Bowl, it wasn't for the audience. It was just for us. It was maybe the purest musical experience I've had in the bowl or anywhere.”

Other musicians told Ross that performances had an air of sadness due to the lack of an audience at the Hollywood Bowl. 

“But at the same time, there was this kind of concentration and this focus on the task at hand which made it very special,” Ross says. “Everyone knows how difficult [the pandemic] is for musicians everywhere. [It’s] a huge crisis of the performing arts, and so that's on everyone's minds too.”

Led by conductor Gustavo Dudamel, “Salón Los Ángeles” is episode two of SOUND/STAGE. It features a rendition of “Rhapsody in Blue” and a couple dancing through the empty stands at the Hollywood Bowl. Often featured during summer programming at the Bowl, Ross says the performance is an upbeat and celebratory part of the series’ lineup. 

Ross says the LA Phil is more than likely not at risk of closing, but more progress must be made. 

“The LA Phil is simply the leader in terms of programming new music, diversifying the repertory, experimenting with different kinds of presentations and theatrical and multimedia events,” he says. “The audience is not as diverse as the programming in a lot of ways. They still want to reach out more to the community [and] diversify the ranks of the orchestra, and just make the orchestra look more like the city of Los Angeles.”

— Written by Danielle Chiriguayo and Amy Ta, produced by Rosalie Atkinson