The Many Faces of the Music Center
Ah, the Music Center. That bastion of high culture for the City of Angels. As a subscriber to L.A. Opera, I have strolled beneath the bands of shimmering crystal that drip from the ceilings of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. At the Ahmanson Theater, I have patronized Broadway musicals (Les Miserables twice). At the Taper I’ve sat, enthralled, as gifted and often renowned actors inhabited raw emotional terrain. Clearly the Music Center is a gift from the County of Los Angeles to the audiences for high culture. To those with the means to buy the tickets, that is.
Hello! Roll back the tape, please! The above assessment is terribly out of date. Terribly! Like about a dozen years.
Across the street from the three theaters at Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Music Center hosts free world-class performances representing diverse culture on selected Saturday and Sunday mornings in the outdoor Keck Amphitheater on the Garden Level. Among the ensembles featured during the 2014-2015 season of the World City program are a two Bolivian dance troupes playing traditional instruments in dazzling costumes, a pair of Italian musicians performing folksongs of Southern Italy in a performance laced with Commedia dell’Arte humor, and a quartet from Kiev that accompanies their singing with drum, accordion, and cello. Attendance at the hour-long performances is FREE and this year, for the first time, you can reserve up to six free tickets in advance, avoiding the line-ups of previous seasons.
In the spirit of recently celebrated Passover, I could say “Dayenu” (It would have been enough), but no, World City further engages children with hands-on activities related to the culture represented in performance. Designed by Music Center Teaching Artists, workshops give children the opportunity to explore the featured culture through art-making projects such as calligraphy, puppets, musical instruments, accordion books, textile projects and more. The program is so beautifully conceived, I must include a summary comment from Artistic Director Barbara Leonard: “World City is a dynamic intersection of art and culture, connecting world-class artists and their traditions with the many diverse communities of our global city. Over the course of World City’s twelve seasons, we will have celebrated 80 different cultures, featuring over 150 extraordinary companies of musicians, dancers, and theatre artists.”
There still may be time for you to reserve tickets for the May 9 offering, the Kulu Mele African Dance and Drum Ensemble. Just get to the musiccenter.org site and select “World City”. Tip: Bring a broad-brimmed hat and wear sunscreen to the performance. The amphitheater is exposed to the noon-day sun.
But wait! It is not enough to have access to free performances as an audience. Since July 2004, with the launching of Active Arts at The Music Center, the Music Center has been engaging a broader public by inviting Angelenos to participate in the arts. For free. Take the Friday Night Sing-Alongs promoted thus:
Ever wonder what’s it like to be part of an enthusiastic group of singers belting out your favorite tunes downtown? Find out on Friday nights! With provided lyrics sheets, a live band and the joy of singing from the heart, Friday Night Sing-Alongs prove that “the sing is the thing!” People show up in droves.
During the summer, Friday nights are devoted to dance from 6:30 to 10:00 pm. We’re talking serious instruction in tango, jazz, salsa, rumba happening under the stars not far from the dancing fountain waters of the Music Center’s outdoor plaza. Live bands and DJs accompany dancers of all levels of experience.
Saturday mornings from 10:00 to 11:30 a.m. in nearby Grand Park, the Center sponsors group drumming and percussion sessions facilitated by an experienced drummer-percussionist.
During the summer, Saturday mornings also feature Ukulele-Along, one of the few activities that charges money. The registration fee is $10 per session OR $25 for all three sessions when you register for all three at the same time. But the description makes it sound well worth it:
Join the summer of strummers and let the sound of the ukulele take you to The Music Center. Enjoy making music with hundreds of fellow recreational musicians and experience drills and thrills, cool chord colorings, and fingerpicking fun.
Enticed? Too bad. Registration for summer is totally filled. Ditto for the Ukulele Christmas Orchestra.
In 2010, Active Arts moved from its base at the Music Center out into communities around the city, collaborating with non-profits and businesses to bring the arts to people who still might not engage in what I’ve described above. Thus Homeboy Industries joined with the Music Center to train youth in photographic storytelling and encouraged them to tell their unique stories in images. Esperanza Housing Corporation offered a similar experience through workshops taught in Spanish. The San Pedro and Peninsula YMCA received resources to offer jazz workshops to young amateur musicians. See Active Arts in the Community.
I have witnessed the transformative power of such programs and enjoyed the arts in an entirely different light while participating. But let’s not take this too far. I will not abandon my opera subscription in favor of arts “for the people.” You will still find me at an intermission for La Boheme, strolling in my long black skirt, nibbling on a chocolate-drizzled strawberry. For me, opera is simply one luscious entrée in the multi-course feast of arts and culture we have in Los Angeles—in large measure thanks to the Music Center.
Audrey Coleman is a writer, educator, and ethnomusicologist who explores world and traditional music happenings in Southern California and beyond.