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An Orchestra Opens Up

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

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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.


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