Whether or not you've been to Southern California, it's highly likely you've seen the Hollywood Bowl in film or on television, from Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly's dash down the aisles to watch an onstage piano master class in Anchors Aweigh and Bette Midler's opening shots in rehearsal in Beaches, to Peter Falk solving a crime in Columbo and just last season, John Legend performing a private concert for Justin Hartley and Sophia Bush in This Is Us.
A night at the Bowl – the summer home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and host to countless other renowned musical artists – is considered one of Los Angeles' quintessential experiences, with audiences picnicking and then settling back in the natural amphitheater to enjoy a concert under the stars.
Now, in the depths of winter, viewing audiences nationwide will be able to get a sampling of the Bowl experience – minus the food, of course – with the six-episode series In Concert at the Hollywood Bowl. The show premiered January 22 at 9:00 p.m. on PBS stations nationally and can also be viewed at pbssocal.org/bowl and on the free PBS app.
First aired in August and September in Southern California, the series was produced by the LA Phil in partnership with local PBS station KCET after the Covid-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the Bowl's 2020 summer season, for the first time in the venue's 98-year history.
Hosted by LA Phil music and artistic director Gustavo Dudamel, the show presents video highlights of Bowl concerts of the past 10 years, artist interviews with Dudamel and in one episode, a conversation between the artists themselves.
"As the pandemic got started, one of the first things everybody turned to, especially when it became clear there would be a longer trajectory, was, how do we continue to connect with our audiences, and continue to provide what we're mission-driven to do, these musical experiences?" explains Gail Samuel, president of the Hollywood Bowl and COO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, of the show's origins.
"At the Bowl, we have this wonderful asset – since 2004 we've been recording image magnification [showing the concerts live on large screens], so this video content provided a great opportunity to take that material and create something that could be shared broadly in partnership with KCET."
As it happened, KCET was already developing a project with the LA Phil, which had to be put on hold when the pandemic hit, so a quick pivot to a different concept was a natural next step, says Juan Devis, chief creative officer of KCET and PBS SoCal and executive producer of In Concert at the Hollywood Bowl.
Once the idea was chosen, "There was the generosity of Gustavo being the host, taking us on a journey," says Devis, who has won 18 Los Angeles Area Emmy Awards since 2013 for KCET programming. "We tried to make every single episode a story about music, and the Bowl." While developing the show with the LA Phil, he decided to approach PBS about bringing the Bowl to a wider audience. "They loved it," he says.
Each of the six episodes has a theme; the series, Samuel notes, is intended to reflect a typical Hollywood Bowl season representative of the diversity of Southern California concertgoers. Clips also include elements "near and dear" to the LA Phil, she adds, such as the organization's training orchestra YOLA (Youth Orchestra Los Angeles), and local artists who have appeared frequently at the Bowl.
"Gustavo was very involved in the selection [of video clips]," Samuel says. "We also relied on our creative chair for jazz, Herbie Hancock, and looked at material by our past chairs, Christian McBride and Dianne Reeves. We leaned on a lot of deep relationships in putting this together."
The opening episode (the order is subject to change) is "Hecho en México" ("Made in Mexico"), which recognizes Los Angeles' roots as a Mexican city with performances by Mexican and Mexican-American artists and the LA Phil. The lineup includes Rodrigo y Gabriela, Natalia Lafourcade and La Santa Cecilia.
January 29 at 9:00 p.m., "Jazz at the Hollywood Bowl" showcases the Bowl's creative jazz chairs past and present, plus Carlos Santana, Wayne Shorter, Kamasi Washington and Cécile McLorin Salvant, among others. The episode is followed at 10:00 p.m. by "Musicals and the Movies," with Tony Award winners Kristin Chenoweth, Sutton Foster, Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell taking the Bowl stage.
In another back-to-back evening February 5, "Gustavo and Friends" at 9:00 p.m. includes American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Misty Copeland performing to Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake and the Los Angeles Master Chorale and LA Phil in the finale to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.
"Fireworks!" at 10:00 p.m. presents musical and literal sparks with Katy Perry, Pink Martini and composer John Williams, himself a Bowl summer institution, conducting the LA Phil in his music from Star Wars.
The series concludes February 12 at 9:00 p.m. with "Música Sin Fronteras" ("Music Without Borders"), its roster including former L.A. Dodgers sportscaster Vin Scully narrating Copland's Lincoln Portrait and dancing by flamenco artist Siudy Garrido.
Dudamel proves a charming and affable host throughout, conversing with performers not only about musical and Bowl topics but on how they're coping during the pandemic.
"He really drew them out in the interviews, and gave us insight as to what life is like for the artists now, as well as connecting back to their joy in being on the Hollywood Bowl stage," Samuel observes. And a chat between Sutton Foster and Brian Stokes Mitchell focuses on what it's like to perform at such an iconic venue – before an audience numbering almost 18,000 on sold-out nights.
Surprisingly for such vastness, a number of artists in the series note the Bowl's intimacy, a sentiment echoed in phone interviews by two members of Pink Martini, the multi-genre, multi-lingual band that debuted at the Bowl in 2000 and has played there numerous times since. According to Dudamel's introduction in the "Fireworks!" episode, they consider the Bowl their second home.
"That's true," affirms pianist Thomas Lauderdale, founder of the Portland, Oregon-based ensemble. "It's the place we've played more than any other venue in the world. We got a big break there in 2000, and every time we go back it's like sitting in a gigantic easy chair. We know the lay of the land.
"It really is the most spectacular place we play," he adds. "There's nothing that compares to it. It's both intimate and gargantuan. It's on that steep hill, and it doesn't seem like 18,000 people when you look at it during the day, but then you hear the [audience] roar, and you realize it's huge.
"It's like an old-fashioned nightclub in a way, where you have tables in front [in box seats] and then people behind them [on benches]. There's the physical layout, which is ideal, and with that the acoustics, and being under the stars, and in Los Angeles. All of that works together to make it a magical wonderland. It's what you hope Hollywood would be like."
Pink Martini vocalist China Forbes cites the Bowl's "coziness." "Maybe it's the way it's nestled in the hillside, and the sound is so enormous and enveloping, and being under the stars together."
Performing at the Bowl is "amazing," she says. "You're nervous, and you're walking out, and you can see the front section clearly, and you can't really see the back. And then at one point I say, 'How's it going in the cheap seats?' and everybody screams from way far away, and then you get the sense of how vast it is, and it's kind of overpowering, actually.
"And especially now with all the cell phones and lights, everyone can show where they are, and you get to see just how big that place is. But then it's comforting, instead of being frightening."
Turning the tables, in the "Musicals and the Movies" episode, Mitchell tells concert co-star Foster about how, after years of performing, he spent his first-ever night at the Bowl as an audience member in 2018 when a friend invited him to attend a Harry Connick, Jr. concert.
"I walked in, and I was like a little kid!" Mitchell says in a phone interview. "They had searchlights, and I was saying, 'Oh, look at the lights!' And all the places to eat. They had fireworks that night, and to see those!
"One of the things that I've always loved about the Hollywood Bowl is that it feels like a happy place to perform," he adds. "You feel that people love being there. They're with their family, they're with their friends, they're drinking wine, they're having a good time. It's a beautiful night – it's always gorgeous there.
"So for me, to have the opportunity to sit in the middle of that and experience it, and watch people laughing with each other and enjoying things, the energy I've always felt from the stage, now I get to feel as an audience member. And it just confirmed for me why the Hollywood Bowl is such a special place."
It's Samuel's wish that the viewers of In Concert at the Hollywood Bowl will also experience some of that special energy.
"I hope that people who aren't familiar with the Hollywood Bowl will really get a sense of it as a magical place, and an appreciation and understanding of the huge range and diversity and breadth of what happens on the stage," she says. "When we announce seasons, I want everyone in Los Angeles to feel there is something at the Bowl for them. I think what you see in these episodes gives a sense of that, and I hope people can appreciate it.
"The Bowl will be back. I hope people enjoy this as a bit of summer sunshine amid everything that is going on."