Established in 1919, the Los Angeles Philharmonic has become one of the world’s top orchestras. Now, with wunderkind Gustavo Dudamel beginning his second year at the orchestra’s podium, interest in both the future and legacy of L.A.’s symphony orchestra has never been greater.
The primary sources of the orchestra’s legacy are preserved in the Los Angeles Philharmonic Archives, an L.A. as Subject member institution based at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Since 1991, Los Angeles cultural history scholars and those researching the Philharmonic’s influence on the wider music world have turned to the archives for recordings, concert programs, press clippings, organizational documents, and ephemera from the Philharmonic’s ninety-one year history.
Archivist Steve LeCoste will exhibit some of those items at the 5th-annual Los Angeles Archives Bazaar on Saturday, October 23 at USC’s Doheny Memorial Library. The 2010 Archives Bazaar will mark the Philharmonic Archives’ third appearance at the annual event, which celebrates the diversity of Southern California history with exhibits, panel discussions, film screenings, and educational sessions.
Established in 1991, the archives hold a strong collection of historical materials dating from 1969 to the present.
LeCoste rescued many of the archives’ materials himself from the rafters of the Hollywood Bowl – where programs, photographs, and correspondence had been haphazardly deposited over the years. Coverage of the Philharmonic’s early years, however, is uneven.
“A lot was lost,” said LeCoste. “What we don’t have is devastating. There’s just decades worth of stuff that’s gone.”
The Los Angeles Philharmonic was created in 1919 by William Andrews Clark, Jr., a copper baron and amateur musician who was the orchestra’s sole patron until his death in 1934. The orchestra grew under a strong succession of musical directors, including Otto Klemperer (1933-39), Zubin Mehta (1962-78) and Esa-Pekka Salonen (1992-2009). The 2003 opening of its new home venue, the Walt Disney Concert Hall, signaled to many a coming-of-age moment in Los Angeles’s cultural history and inspired renewed interest in the city’s resident orchestra.
Preserving L.A.’s Musical History
As custodians of over ninety years of musical history, the Philharmonic Archives focus on “going twenty-first century,” LeCoste said. They are currently digitizing their collections and plan to make some items publicly available through the California Digital Library’s Online Archive of California (OAC).
One particularly important collection is the Betty Freeman Collection. Freeman (1921-2009) was a prominent philanthropist of the arts who was especially active in the Los Angeles region. Beginning in 1981, she hosted a series of musical events at her Beverly Hills house that featured some of the most renowned composers of the twentieth century, including Phil Glass, György Ligeti, and Steve Reich. During these Music Room sessions, which were captured on audio tape, the composers discussed their work, played a chosen piece of music, and answered questions from the small audience. Before her death, Freeman had intended to adapt these recordings into a book, but the project never came to fruition. When digitization is complete, the archives hope to make the Betty Freeman recordings available to serve as the basic of new scholarship on twentieth century music.
Performance recordings make up a core part of the archives’ collections. Because many recordings predate modern digital technology, some have presented a challenge to the archives’ staff.
The Dave Swedlow Collection, for instance, contains recordings of everything performed at the Hollywood Bowl and Philharmonic Auditorium from 1954 to 1959. The recordings were made on 3-track tapes, a short-lived format that is virtually extinct. To extract the recordings, the Archives enlisted the aid of Bernie Grundman Mastering, a renowned transfer company based in Hollywood. Grundman first built a custom-made 3-track player. It then transferred the tapes to the more common 2-track format, and then converted the tapes into an incorruptible digital format.
In addition to their digitization efforts, the archives are also working to raise awareness of the resources it makes available to historians and music scholars.
“We’re working on visibility,” said LeCoste. “We get a lot of requests for research, but we’re hoping people will come down to the Walt Disney Concert Hall and access our archives themselves.”
The archives, located at 151 S. Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles, are open to researchers by appointment only. To schedule a reservation, please call (213) 972-7689.
Materials from the archives are displayed throughout the year at Disney Hall’s Ernest Fleishmann Gallery. The current exhibition looks back at the musical festivals in which the Philharmonic has participated.