Why We Love Pasadena: “Big City” Arts and Culture

Saturday night, Pasadena music lovers scowled in consternation as they studied their date books and were forced to make a choice between TWO excellent orchestras, both performing in central Pasadena at the same time: the Pasadena Symphony, and the Colburn School Orchestra.

The Pasadena Symphony performed a free special concert, “Music Under the Stars,” in front of City Hall. Featuring music from Broadway musicals, along with performances by other local musicians and choirs, and a family festival with food trucks providing the munchies, residents stretched out in their lawn chairs and enjoyed the music under the clear night sky.

The Robinson brothers also enjoyed "Music Under the Stars," performed by the Pasadena Symphony in front of City Hall. During the concert, the expression on their faces was much less stony! Er, iron-y! Hah!

A few blocks away, in the gorgeous and acoustically excellent Ambassador Auditorium, the orchestra of the Colburn School of Music opened its concert season with Mussorgsky’s much–loved “Pictures at an Exhibition.”

Pasadena's Ambassador Auditorium, home of HRock Church, the Pasadena Symphony, and the Colburn Orchestra

Although not as well-known as, for example, Julliard or the Eastman School of Music, Downtown Los Angeles’ Colburn School provides similar elite music instruction to competitive young musicians. This year, the Colburn School chose the Ambassador Auditorium as its preferred venue, and its orchestra will perform its entire season at the Ambassador.

A Full House: The orchestra of the Colburn School of Music performs inside the Ambassador Auditorium

Obviously, word has spread of these excellent free concerts, because on Saturday night all tickets were sold out, and the “rush” line of people hoping to snag a no–show seat was at least 50 people deep.

Those lucky enough to get in were well rewarded. The student musicians dug into their parts enthusiastically. I was especially struck by how rich and solid the string section sounded, playing together with perfect intonation and rhythm, the upper strings strongly supported by the lower strings.

Joseph Brown revealed a wonderful new timbre that I had never heard before in his trumpet solos, Christopher Bartz coaxed a magnificently blended orchestral sound out of his alto saxophone, and Francesca dePasquale, the soloist for Dvorak’s Violin Concerto, performed on the 1st part of the program, was virtuosic.

The point is, for a city of only 140,000 people, Pasadena enjoys an extraordinarily high number of artistic and cultural events, and it’s a reason that residents frequently cite when talking about why they love their city. Indeed, one of Pasadena’s Seven Guiding Principles is: “Pasadena will be promoted as a cultural, scientific, corporate, entertainment, and educational center for the region.”

If we consider orchestras alone, Pasadena is home to the following: the Pasadena Symphony, the Pasadena Pops, the Colburn School, Muse/ique, the Pasadena Community Orchestra, the Pasadena Young Musicians Orchestra, the Crown City Symphony, the Lake Avenue Chamber Orchestra, the Caltech–Occidental Symphony Orchestra, and the Southwest Chamber Music ensemble.

At an average of 50 musicians per orchestra, that’s 140,000 / (50×10) = 1 musician per 280 residents!

That’s a silly statistic, of course, but still impressive and kind of fun. Santa Monica and Long Beach would stack up similarly, I suspect. But Pasadena has the advantage of close proximity and reliably quick access to Downtown LA, the true cultural center of Southern California, via the Gold Line and its own effectively private freeway, the 110.

A number of factors contribute to Pasadena’s cultural richness, not the least of which is the socioeconomic makeup and educational attainment of its populace. But also important are population density* and community engagement*, which we often discuss on this blog.

As the arts are of interest to a minority of people, it takes a critical mass (quantity) of local (proximity) supporters to fund and attend events. Quantity ÷ Proximity = Density.

Community engagement is that ephemeral measurement of a people’s social attitudes towards one another, and the propensity of those people to act upon those feelings.  Do a city’s people care about what goes on in their city? Do they bother to get to know their neighbors? To be friendly? To join local causes? Show up to meetings? Drop by each others’ houses? Host parties? Participate in local sports? Volunteer at a church or school? Read the local newspaper? Smile at passers-by?  Vote?  Get involved with a neighborhood association? <ahem> 

Those are activities and habits that do not occur naturally on their own, in a vacuum, but which must be cultivated and maintained, and which depend on collective participation by everybody.  Pasadena has historically done well in this regard; we have been joiners and doers, and that’s why the arts are alive in Pasadena.

Let’s keep it that way!

* For further reading on the importance of density & efficiency in cities, I recommend Richard Florida’s article in the Atlantic Monthly: “The Rise of the Social City.”  On community engagement, the seminal work is Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam.