by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As the Hollywood Bowl celebrates its centennial with all kinds of live performances, a podcast, merch, a members’ Club 101, a 7-album vinyl box set of recordings and a coffee table book—this last including a couple of photographs from the Homestead’s collection—this is a good time to offer this post featuring a ticket to a Popular Orchestral Concert held at the venue on 27 July 1923.
Part of the context for this is, as with so many other aspects of life pointed out in posts on this blog, the tremendous growth of greater Los Angeles during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and how it reflected in music, including so-called “serious” or classical music. A major signpost was the establishment, in 1893, of the Los Angeles Symphony, followed by the founding of a woman’s orchestra, the development in 1919 of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and in other ways.
With the creation of the Hollywood Bowl, the presentation of classical music in an unmatched physical outdoor setting in our temperate climate was a match made in musical heaven and the event for which the ticket was issued is a good example of the rapid development of the quality of the terpsichorean muse in the Angel City. This performance was one of a series conducted by Emil Oberhoffer (1867-1933,) who’d recently resigned after 19 years leading the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra and was living in San Diego due to the poor health of his wife.
Oberhoffer was a native of Munich in Bavaria, which, when he was a small child became part of a unified Germany. He came from a musical family, with his father being an organist, composer and conductor and his mother and siblings all talented musicians. The youngster was a prodigy on the organ, viola and violin and an obituary noted “he first displayed talent for interpretation at 11 years of age, when he began directing the musical play in which he worked.”
He studied in his native country as well as in Paris, where he trained on the piano and was still in his teens when, in 1885, he immigrated to New York City. There he was, for three years, the musical director at Manhattan University and also directed comic and grand operas in the Big Apple for a dozen years. As the century neared its close, Oberhoffer moved to St. Paul, Minnesota to conduct the chorus and orchestra of the Schubert Club—these organizations (such as the Ellis and Gamut clubs in Los Angeles) being popular avenues for serious music performance before orchestras were established.
Oberhoffer taught for half dozen years at the University of Minnesota, where he was also briefly dean of the department of music and, in 1903, was the founder and conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. The following year, his name appeared in a Los Angeles newspaper article surveying American classical music development, but it was quite a while before he made his local debut as a guest conductor with the Minneapolis ensemble. When he did, in 1917, he and the orchestra were warmly received and there were return engagements for a few years afterward.
In 1922, Oberhoffer resigned from the Minneapolis Symphony, with disagreements about its operations purportedly being a major issue, though his wife’s health also led to the move to California. The following spring, after denying any commitments, though saying that he turned down an offer in San Francisco, had another in the East Coast, and wanted to conduct in Europe in the fall, he signed a contract to be a guest conductor for the popular concert series at the Bowl. The 19 May edition of the Hollywood Citizen reported that the conductor immediately was to begin work assembling the ensemble for the eight concerts, beginning on 10 July. It continued that “Emil Oberhoffer is well known throughout the country as a man of great musical genius and merit.”
In a separate article in that edition, the paper quoted the conductor as saying “this is the first time in my career that I have every ‘signed on the doted line’ and it has been a delightful experience for, before it has always been a ‘gentleman[‘s] agreement . . . and gave me a feeling of exquisite security.” He added that, while he took up quarters in Los Angeles, “my being lives right here in the Bowl.”
In a review of a Bowl concert given on 26 July, José Rodriguez, a rare Latino journalist/critic among Angel City newspapers, talked about the conductor’s decision to acknowledge audience appreciation:
Oberhoffer, perceiving the thankfulness of the audience, volunteered the Rustin Dance, which was not programmed. [It was] a charming and spontaneous gesture.
Incidentally, this is the characteristic of Oberhoffer—an inherent and chivalrous charm and generosity of temperament . . . rarely do we come across one who intrigues our affection like he does.
On the 28th, the Los Angeles Express reported that the average attendance for the season was about 9,000 persons, so that “every one of next week’s programs at the Bowl might well be called popular.” It added that “conductor Oberhoffer understands well how to balance these open-air programs” by, for example, offering Felix Mendelssohn’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” as “an ideal selection for music in the hills, as was “Afternoon of a Faun” by Claude Debussy.
For the concert on the 27th, Bruno David Ussher of the Express opened his review by averring that “Conductor Oberhoffer could hardly have tested the musical appreciation of his large audience better” because he “knows well how to build programs.” That is, he began with “almost severely classic pieces” and then this “was relieved by old and new romantics.” Works from Brahms, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, and Tchaikovsky were also on the bill along with two aforementioned.
The Mozart clarinet quintet, Ussher stated, “left the deepest impression” and “is a tribute to the poetic appeal Oberhoffer’s interpretations have, to the devotion the which his ensemble plays, and last but not least, it proves definitely that the public enjoys profoundly serious music if played musically, i.e., in [a] heartfelt manner.” This was because “Oberhoffer’s phrasing throbs with the heart-pulse that lives in every composition.”
Moreover, the critic continued, “the listener found himself surprised in hearing new instrumental effects, inner instrumental voices of the scores which Conductor Oberhoffer reveals” even “despite his almost uncanny power of always conducting by [the] heart.” In other words, though it appeared that emotion drove much of Oberhoffer’s method, there were subtle and powerful techniques that drove the music and had unexpected effects on the audience (or, at least, to Ussher.)
As an example of how the Bowl and Oberhoffer sought to “democratize” the offerings they presented, the Los Angeles Times of the 27th discussed how film star Mae Murray contributed $1,000 for a matinee concert for children. Murray was said to be “one of the most enthusiastic attendants of the concerts” conducted by Oberhoffer “and was delighted with the results of the children’s concert given recently” and during which youngsters “expressed such interest in and attention to the music.” Among those institutions participating were Children’s Hospital, the Orthopaedic Hospital, a children’s clinic, and the county orphans’ home.
Notably, after the summer season was completed, there was a celebration on 1 September as the Hollywood Bowl Association held a public burning of its $24,000 mortgage on the venue at the final concert. There had to be some last-minute fundraising undertaken so that $6,000 was subscribed in a fifteen-minute period, but this was accomplished at the eleventh hour and the ceremony of setting the document aflame allowed to be carried out as planned.
As for Oberhoffer, he returned to the Bowl in 1926 to conduct the orchestra for the first two weeks of the summer season and it was reported in the Los Angeles Record of 28 June that he was present at the mortgage-burning ceremony. The paper also noted that “as formerly, according to the thought in which the bowl was conceived, that of democratizing music and giving it to the masses at low cost” ticket prices were set at a quarter when purchased in a book and double that at a single ticket price.
The next March, after the death of Walter Henry Rothwell, conductor of the Philharmonic Orchestra, Oberhoffer was hired as a temporary replacement while William Andrews Clark, Jr., the prime mover of the orchestra was away in Europe and a permanent conductor hired upon his return. As he was making his way to the Angel City, the Los Angeles Illustrated News of the 17th reported that “leaders of local musical circles are planning to welcome Oberhoffer upon his arrival here” and added “he made hundreds of friends and won many admirers when he conducted the Hollywood bowl [sic] summer concert series in 1923.” When Clark returned to Los Angeles, however, he decided that the conductor should finish the season and George Schnevoigt was hired to be the new permanent conductor.
Obenhoffer, who was a guest conductor in Detroit, San Francisco and St. Louis as well as in Los Angeles after leaving the Minneapolis Symphony, maintained homes in the Twin Cities area (his home there is a landmark) and in San Diego. He and his wife went to the latter for the winter in 1932 and he was already in poor health and he was bedridden from March until his death on 22 May 1933.
This ticket is a small, but representative item, of the early years of the Hollywood Bowl and a modest contribution from the Homestead in celebration of the venue’s centennial year. We’ll look to share other Bowl-related artifacts during the remaining months of 2022 as part of the commemoration, so be sure to look out for those posts.