Hollywood Bowl At 100: Multi-Genre History On (What Else?) Vinyl LPs

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Hollywood Bowl 100: The First 100 Years of Music comprises seven LPs of performances featuring artists in many genres.

Hollywood Bowl 100: The First 100 Years of Music. Los Angeles Philharmonic, Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, Count Basie and His Orchestra, Christian McBride Big Band. Vladimir Bakaleinkoff, Leonard Bernstein, Carlos Chavez, Gustavo Dudamel, Jack Everly, Paul Gemignani, Eugene Goosens, Sarah Hicks, Serge Koussevitzky, John Mauceri, Zubin Mehta, Vince Mendoza, David Newman, Miklós Rózsa, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Kevin Stites, Igor Stravinsky, Bramwell Tovey, Thomas Wilkins, John Williams, Meredith Willson, Victor Young (conductors), various soloists and performers. Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, seven LPs.

ANALOG REVIEW — Los Angeles first became a major musical and cultural destination when The Music Center opened in 1964, right? Wrong! Just take a glancing look at the history of the Hollywood Bowl, a few miles north of downtown on U.S. 101, and you will find a parade of names and events stretching back 100 years that is just about equal in sheer star power to any place west of Carnegie Hall.

Now the Bowl’s centenary season is here: It started on June 3 with a multi-genre blowout of a concert, with the traditional classical weekday series opening on July 12, and the time sounds right for a major recorded retrospective. Throughout a good deal of the Bowl’s history, a tape or disc recorder was running somewhere, either for archival purposes or for future release by record labels large and small. The Bowl’s museum had an installation recently in which one could listen to several historic, unreleased live recordings on headphones.

Fireworks erupted on opening night June 3, 2022, at the Hollywood Bowl. (Mathew Imaging)

If the rights could be secured — admittedly a complex, perhaps impossible task — I would imagine that the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which operates the Bowl for the County of Los Angeles, could have compiled a 100-disc survey of music spanning a century, adding to the plethora of giant box sets for collectors. Instead, the Phil has issued Hollywood Bowl 100, a laminated box bathed in magenta, red, orange, purple, and green hues containing Bowl performances on seven vinyl LPs. That’s right — LPs. No streams, downloads, or CDs. There is nostalgia value in that — and also a tacit bet that hardly anyone one buys CDs anymore.

Despite its space limitations and choices of material that are begging to be second-guessed (how does one begin to choose from 100 years of music?), this might be the most wildly diverse collection of music ever issued. While the Bowl was originally founded as an al fresco outpost for culture — read: classical music — the Bowl has gradually and in recent years increasingly become a staging ground for all kinds of music, with classical music occupying just a plurality of the programming at most. Accordingly, this box is divided into sections for Classical, Pop/Rock, Jazz, Film, and Broadway/American Songbook, with side trips into reggae, mariachi, disco, rap, world pop, and hybrids that one can’t easily stick a label on.

Gustavo Dudamel on opening night 2022. (Mathew Imaging)

Some of this material has been available commercially for a while, like the Doors rocking out to “Hello, I Love You” or Bowl regular Ella Fitzgerald singing “Too Close for Comfort.” But the vast majority of the selections has never been released anywhere. Classical music gets the most attention with three-and-a-half LP sides, with jazz and film tied for second place at three sides apiece, followed by pop/rock at two-and-a-half sides, and Broadway/American Songbook at two sides. The selection is heavily weighted in favor of the last fifth of the Bowl’s history: 36 of the 55 selections are from this century.

The sound is mostly lo-fi, even the recent stuff, probably because much of the set consists of archival recordings never intended for release and thus not produced for optimum sound quality. Documentation unfortunately is skimpy for such a lavish package.

The seven individual record sleeves list the selections, the headliners, the composers, and, thankfully, the dates of the recordings, but none of the members of the bands are noted — not even major figures like saxophonist Paul Desmond of the Dave Brubeck Quartet. There is no booklet or notes, just a single three-paragraph blurb on the back of the set that reads like a press release, faded photos on the record sleeves, and a brief comment by Gustavo Dudamel hidden on the bottom of the box.

The classical section is mostly restricted to short pieces and individual movements, which can be tantalizing and frustrating. Case in point: Leonard Bernstein conducting the Scherzo from Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony at a glacial pace from an August 1983 concert I attended, recorded three days before he turned 65. While it’s a cherishable souvenir of one of the highlights of my life (I also met and interviewed Lenny at the Bowl earlier that day), it leaves me up in the air; where’s the rest of the performance?

Leonard Bernstein conducting the LA Philharmonic in Beethoven’s Third Symphony in 1983. (Photo courtesy of the LA Philharmonic)

The music that has been circulating the longest is Dvořák’s Carnival Overture, part of the first recording ever made in the Bowl, a five-disc set of 78s from 1928, A Hollywood Bowl Concert: “Symphonies under the Stars.” Eugene Goossens was imported to lead the Philharmonic, which was operating under the alias Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, presumably for publicity value many years before there actually was such a band. The sound is reasonably clear for an early electrical recording, and astounding considering that it was recorded outdoors in one of the Bowl’s temporary shells before the iconic permanent shell was built the following year. The tempo is fast, the phrasing sometimes quaint, the ensemble work not to be compared with the present LA Phil, yet listenable and full of spirit.

Every concert at the Bowl has started with “The Star Spangled Banner” since way back when, but this box has the moxie to honor that ritual with Stravinsky’s irreverently re-harmonized version, as led by the aged composer himself in 1966. Arthur Rubinstein hits some appalling clinkers in the first movement of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 from 1949; though this is a rare example of Serge Koussevitzky leading an orchestra other than his mighty Boston Symphony, it’s a strange choice that does Rubinstein no favors. Nor is Bido Sayão well represented in an ear-piercing rendition of Manuel Ponce’s syrupy “Estrellita,” as led by Carlos Chávez.

Zubin Mehta’s energetic 1961 performance of “A Ball” from Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique is the earliest example on record of him conducting the Phil that I know of; he was all of 25 and already wowing the ladies who then ran the orchestra with his exotic fire. Esa-Pekka Salonen is represented, curiously, by mournful, low-key Sibelius — “The Death Of Melisande.” Yet most of the LA Phil’s music directors — even relatively recent ones like Carlo Maria Giulini, who rarely conducted at the Bowl and André Previn — are missing in action.

Jose Iturbi and Frank Sinatra backstage at the Hollywood Bowl.

Dudamel, the first music director since Mehta who has ardently embraced the Bowl, gets a lot of disc time. Alas, the mediocre sound quality of his Tchaikovsky 1812 Overture — the climax of the Bowl’s annual Tchaikovsky Spectacular — barely suggests the crazy spectacle of the Bowl blowing up in noisy fireworks (aside from some distant howling crowd reactions). But in a couple of bold choices, Dudamel is heard at his best in the swaying rhythm of Arturo Márquez’s Danzón No. 1 and in Gabriela Ortiz’s rhythmically quirky “Ritual Mind – Corporeous Pulse” from Corpórea (both recorded without an audience for SoundStage in August 2020 during the pandemic).

Dudamel’s populist agenda surfaces when he leads an imaginative backing chart for Mexican singer/songwriter Natalia Lafourcade, a gig with the rapper Common, and on the Broadway disc two selections from Bernstein’s On The Town and West Side Story.

The Bowl’s other resident ensemble orchestra, the studio-musician-staffed Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, is confined mainly to the Film and Broadway/American Songbook discs. Its founder and conductor for 16 seasons, John Mauceri, gets only two selections and his successor, Thomas Wilkins, five.

The jazz sides are the most satisfying in this anthology since they consist of self-contained numbers as opposed to excerpts from larger works. There is a priceless side of mostly unreleased material from the 1950s — Billie Holiday singing her blues, Dave Brubeck taking the “A Train,” the “New Testament” Count Basie Orchestra swinging the bejeebers out of “Blues in Frankie’s Flat” (a.k.a. “Blues in Hoss’ Flat”). Soul giant James Brown makes a final rambling Bowl appearance in 2006 in front of the Christian McBride Big Band — JB would be gone only three months later — and the featured drummer is the great Louie Bellson (I was at that concert, too).

The Film section for me is the weakest, with too much room given to a nearly side-long medley of John Barry’s James Bond music as the sole unrepresentative entry for another regular Bowl conductor, Bramwell Tovey. All but two of the selections hail from this century; film music wasn’t done much at the Bowl until Mauceri arrived in 1991. But there is some important deep Bowl history to be found there — Fred Astaire singing “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” at the 1937 memorial concert for his friend George Gershwin (which would have fit better in the American Songbook section, but was placed under Film).

Previously circulated from a set of discs preserved by George’s brother Ira, this concert was the bellwether for the eventual invasion of popular music at the Bowl that burst forth in 1943 with an appearance by Frank Sinatra near the beginning of his solo career. His spine-chilling rendition of “Night and Day” is a revelation, filled with seductive little turns of phrase not present on the original 78 that drive the girls wild, as you can hear. Frankiemania was in the house, captured for posterity. (There is nothing, though, of the famous Beatlemania concerts of 1964 and ’65; Capitol Records put that music out in 1977.)

Yet the selection that best captures the frenzy when the Bowl is really shaking and jumping is the tumultuous finale from the MARIACHI USA Festival of 1990. The crowd just goes nuts as the trumpets play in signature thirds, the strings swoon, and the band accelerates down the stretch. Music is supposedly a universal language, so the cliché goes, but it’s not true; a favorite genre for some is often anathema to others. But whether or not one is into mariachi, the verve and excitement of this track can be felt by all.

Perhaps that’s what the Phil is hoping for by releasing this something-for-almost-everyone box — an invitation to step out of one’s personal box to sample the different flavors that belong in the Bowl of today. But you will need a turntable to find out.

The Hollywood Bowl 100 box is available only through the LA Phil store. For details, go here.