Some days, L.A. feels like a Norse myth. You crack a kitchen window, you cradle your coffee, you slap a rolled-up newspaper against your thigh and vow to venture out, away from the freeways or chattering choppers.
A giant city is cumulative. Its annoyances build on one another, like tiers of a flawed and crooked cake.
But every great city also offers these little interludes, the fodder for these weekly “Postcards” I keep sending you. Some interludes are silly, some are loud, some are sonnets.
Today we have a symphony.
We’re at the Hollywood Bowl for a morning rehearsal of the L.A. Philharmonic, a free and easy aside, an L.A. hidden gem.
As you know, some composers write thunder, others write rain. This morning we have a summer shower: Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.” It has the feathered edges of a French painting. It is the aural equivalent of raindrops on roses.
Such a summer sound.
Now, as you sensed, I’m a bit of a bumpkin. I prefer long-neck beer and tailgate parties and steel guitars. I don’t understand yeast, astrology or recumbent bikes.
To think, I’ve lasted nearly 30 years in this frilly, silly metropolis?
Yet I’ve lasted in this town exactly because of moments like this. This morning at the Bowl there seem to be a thousand strings (like hockey games, violins are always better in person).
There is also people-watching — my favorite sport — plus the pastoral canyon light, the doves and sparrows, the black sage and sugarbush on the hill.
I even like all the empty chairs. After three decades in L.A., and 20 years in Chicago, I’ve grown to appreciate the sight of 18,000 empty seats. Putzing around in off-hours can provide quieter rewards. Like entering a cathedral on a Tuesday. Or Wrigley Field in winter.
The Hollywood Bowl’s wood benches have long been blasted by the sun so that they have texture and a silver Cape Cod skin. I hope they never replace them. These benches have absorbed more great music than Gustavo Dudamel himself. The Beatles, for instance. Billie Holiday. Judy Garland. The Doors. The seats are a little rough, sure, like barn wood. If you get a sliver in your backside, don’t fret. Consider it a souvenir you can show off at dinner parties.
When you come to these free morning practices, be sure to bring along a sun bonnet, a cup of coffee, a book, an umbrella (for shade), maybe a glass of Cabernet. That’s what Don and Pam Brennan have done, lugging a handsome bottle all the way from Chino, 90 minutes on the increasingly frantic L.A. freeways.
“We brought our own wine we make ourselves,” says Don, a professional guitarist, as they settle in for the morning rehearsal, something they do a few times a summer.
“Cheers,” says Don, who’s been coming to the Bowl since 1975.
The Duvals are also here, Amy and Justin. They’ve brought their toddler, Anders, having carved out a Thursday, setting aside the morning. They sweep the hair out of their son’s eyes. They exhale.
“We come to the night concerts, but now that we have him they are few and far between,” Amy explains.
On another morning, Deb Lerner comes from West L.A., over by the beach, where she has promised herself to get out a little more.
“Where else can you do something like this for free?” she asks, while citing the hassles of the evening performances, a former pleasure she grew to avoid.
Music lovers know that evening drill: the traffic, the parking, the getting here early to claim a picnic spot, all the challenges we endure and forgive, because the Bowl at night can be transcendent.
But it can also crush you, as you get home at midnight, seven hours after you started, feeling like you have been in an urban war.
And I can never remember: Can I bring wine? Or not bring wine? The determining factor is whether it’s a series event or run by an outside vendor.
Ugh. So many rules.
But mornings are simple.
Thank you, L.A. County, which runs the nearly 100-year-old joint. Sometimes it seems you futz up everything you touch, but you get this open rehearsal right, this little bone you throw to serfs and country bumpkins like me.
Thanks, too, to the L.A. Phil.
“I’m always surprised there aren’t more people,” says Don Brennan, the Bowl’s morning sommelier.
There’s really only a smattering of spectators here, on benches along the right side, not too close so as not to disturb the orchestra. I count 100 when rehearsal starts, that swells to maybe twice that, then starts to thin.
As befits the Bowl, there is stacked parking for the rehearsals. Does that kill your buzz? Are there two worse cuss words in the L.A. lexicon than stacked parking?
Well, stick with me here. You can request a parking position for an early exit, and they’ll generally try to accommodate you.
And down below, the moppy-haired maestro, in short sleeves and often standing tiptoe in his white tennies, is telling his musicians how he’d like something phrased.
“Bum-bum … bum-bum-bum,” sings Dudamel.
“Keep going every time,” he tells the musicians, which is good advice for all of us.
Yeah, L.A. is cumulative. The bad stuff piles up, but the good stuff does too. You can focus on its flaws or you can discover secret hideaways like this, where world-class music is doled out weekly, like government cheese.
At this moment, the hummingbird pianist, Yuja Wang, is doing something to a John Adams composition that might be a misdemeanor, might be a sonnet, might be the same sound a leaf makes skittering across a pond.
Indeed, it might be all of those.
Some soloists play thunder, others play rain. Yuja plays it all.