An Orchestra Opens Up

The Los Angeles symphony picks nontraditional venues for concerts. DIVERSITY IN THE ARTS

UPSTAIRS in the Hsi Lai Temple here, a clash of cultures is being harmonized through the language of music. As robed bodhisattvas (Buddhas in training) clop to and fro over 15 acres of marble courtyards and temple hallways, the strains of Mozart and Beethoven waft out across the misty hills.

In an auditorium, the three string players that occupy a small stage are members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Their audience is mostly Chinese - some Chinese-Americans, some Chinese monks who speak no English.

Since sweeping demographic changes are hitting Southern California full force, including a 62 percent increase in the Hispanic population and a doubling of Asian residents since 1980, this event is the beginning of a new era in concert programming. It is a case study for a orchestras in communities all across America.

"What we're responding to here is a major wave of immigration that is changing the definition of America from here to Davenport, Iowa," says Peter Sellars, creative consultant to the orchestra. More than just bestowing elitist culture from downtown to the suburbs, Mr. Sellars wants his musicians to rub shoulders with the changing community and get a broadened sense of who that community includes.

Equal parts community outreach, education, and audience development, this concert evening is also having an uncalculated effect.

"I had no idea this temple was here," says Daniel Rothmuller, a cellist who lives downtown, across the street from the Philharmonic's usual venue, the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion.

To play before his out-of-the-ordinary audience, Mr. Rothmuller had to drive 20 miles southeast through several sprawling, ethnic neighborhoods. Adjacent Rowland Heights for instance, has seen its Asian population more than quadruple since 1980. Asian restaurants, retail stores, and signs abound.

"I mean, this place is so vast and ornate, I thought I was in China," he says. After the concert, his hosts treated him to a tour of temple grounds and told of the 2,500-year tradition of Buddhist music including gongs and drums. He learned the history of the temple, now an International Buddhist Progress Society. Finished in 1988 with $25 million from Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, Hsi Lai literally means Buddha "coming to the West."

Over time, such interaction will help fuel a redefinition and rejuvenation of a tradition - the downtown symphony concert - that many feel has become a museum for musical dinosaurs.

"We are so smug about America the great melting pot that we've failed to deal with the last major waves of immigration," Sellars says.

In a schedule that will grow over the next few years, the Los Angeles Philharmonic will break itself into trios, chamber groups, ensembles, mini- and full-sized orchestras. The groups will contact and play often-specialized repertoires in the Hispanic churches, Black gospel halls, Korean temples, and other venues that feed 85 different languages into the public school system.

"Only in L.A. could we try such a thing," says Adolfo Nodal, general manager of the city cultural affairs department.

The orchestra has played so-called "community" concerts before, in schools, prisons, and shopping malls. But the new idea is trying to go a giant step further. "We want this to be a two-way street," says Rothmuller, a Philharmonic player for 20 years. "It is very important for this to be an exchange." That will mean a cross-fertilization of Chinese, Korean, Hispanic, black, and other composers, instruments, and performance traditions.

In coming weeks, different sized groups will play gospel songs with chorus at a Baptist church and Panamanian dances by black composer William Grant Still at a community club, with more familiar names like Mendelssohn, Handel, and Haydn.

"The musicians are free to design programs with their hosts," says Ara Guzelimian, music administrator for the Philharmonic. "Nothing is set in concrete ... this is an evolving idea."

Organizers hesitate to label the new idea or set it apart in marketing because they want it to become an integral part of what a community orchestra is all about. But they expect it to alleviate another concern they see plaguing orchestras across America: boredom from within.

"This definitely frees us up from the old structure in which [we] are lost in sea of orchestra players," says Dale Silverman, a violinist. "[This] will be a catalyst to all things creative."

Some observers wish the cross-fertilization concept would go further, faster. "It's good that the symphony should go out to where the people are," says Yen Lu Wong, who helped organize the Hsi Lai Temple concert. Somewhat miffed that the players did not include Chinese composers in their first offering here, Ms. Yen remarked: "They will have to be sure they are not reaching down to us, but rather across."

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