How I Did That: Pasadena POPS

On this September night, with a full moon rising and stars twinkling above, 2,000 eager concert-goers give themselves over to Maestra Rachael Worby and the Pasadena POPS Orchestra. Nestled among ancient California Oak trees, the audience hums, taps, and sways to music ranging from Stevie Wonder to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Enrapt by the sounds of the 70-plus-member orchestra in this magnificent setting, the audience is unaware of the logistical and technical feats that make this magical, musical moment possible.

Pasadena, CA, known as the “Crown City” but perhaps more famous for its annual Tournament of Roses Parade and Rose Bowl college football game, features another, lesser-known jewel in its crown: the Pasadena POPS Orchestra. For the past 13 years, the orchestra has performed an outdoor concert series at the Descanso Gardens in nearby La Canada-Flintridge.

Performing in an outdoor venue such as Descanso Gardens presents a host of logistical and staging difficulties, according to POPS technical producer Larry Estrin. However, working together with us at Entertainment Lighting Services (ELS), the POPS/Descanso team has been able to surmount these obstacles and offer an ever-growing and ever-green series of concerts under the stars.

“To compete with Los Angeles' Hollywood Bowl, Greek Theatre, Disney Concert Hall, and other quality entertainment offerings, POPS has to provide its followers with a unique experience,” says Estrin. “Descanso Gardens fits the bill. It is a beautiful location and a wonderful setting for the Pasadena POPS and their audience, rivaling any other venue in Southern California, but the location also presents a unique set of challenges.”

As Descanso Gardens' executive director David Brown notes, “There is a long tradition of music and performance in a garden setting. By taking performance from the conventional indoors setting to the surprising outdoors, there is a return to the origins of theatre and music in a primeval environment, enhancing the experience for both performers and audience. The POPS at Descanso is very much in this spirit.

“However, crowds of thousands with high expectations in terms of performance values are hard on the grounds, plants, and infrastructure, and, unfortunately, often at odds with the other purposes of the gardens,” he adds.

As a working botanical garden, home to many endangered and exotic plants, as well as unique botanical exhibits, Descanso caters to the public, hosting a variety of individuals, groups, tours, educational events, and workshops. In the summer, as many as 500 to 600 kids — in addition to the regular park attendees — a day may visit the site. Therefore the POPS-ELS crew must take special care to protect the site and minimize the impact of the concert series on the Gardens' main mission. For example, the California oaks surrounding the POPS stage and scattered throughout the audience seating area are protected by state law and cannot be trimmed or moved, so they were incorporated into the concert setting.

“Those majestic California Oak trees are a bit in the way,” Estrin confesses, “but they're beautiful, and I love them. And they add a beautiful, natural element to the performance.”

“Fortunately, we have developed a great relationship with the folks at Descanso Gardens,” he adds. “They have been involved in all of our planning and have been hugely supportive of our efforts.”

Pasadena POPS operations director Kiki Gerardo coordinates the production elements and makes sure it all stays within budget. The “Summer Nights” concert series included eight performances held one Friday and Saturday each month from June through September, meaning the planners had to deal with the demands of an outdoor venue and accommodate a four-month schedule.

“That was where a collaborative relationship with our facility host and our lighting and production services vendor paid off,” Gerardo states. “ELS designed and equipped a stage and lighting system that could be left on site.”

That capability was made possible with the addition last year of a ground-supported tower truss, with a self-climbing roof system fitted with custom-rigged vinyl canopy. The canopy-roof system served several purposes: It provided more diffuse overhead light for the performers to see their sheet music; it improved the onstage acoustics, allowing the musicians to hear themselves better; and it better illuminated the orchestra for the audience. This year, the canopy-roof system also served as a cover for all the stage and lighting gear when it's stowed away between performances.

“This allowed us to leave everything on site and reduced the expense of repeated teardowns and setups,” says ELS vice president George Gray. “The result was a less-invasive yet more affordable solution for the POPS at Descanso Gardens.”

Adds Brown, “I like to call this ingenious staging created by the POPS-Descanso-ELS team the ‘origami stage’ — it just pops up, relieving us and the gardens of the wear and tear of four complete move-ins and move-outs. They've even made the box disappear into the landscape when not in use.”

As POPS stage manager Louis Lind describes it, “In years past, the crews would take two days to dismantle and remove everything every month.” But this year, it only took a half-day or so to stow the gear for the next month's performances. Setup for each weekend's two-performance set took about two days.

“When we returned the next month, there was always a surprise. Because it's outdoors and a botanical garden, it could become a bit overgrown a month later, and raccoons and other critters sometimes took up residence,” Lind adds. “We would go in on Wednesday and raise the roof. The stage was already in, so we only needed to set up the risers. On Thursday, we set up the audio and any additional platforms, checked the lights, and rehearsed that weekend's music. We tweaked the lighting, sound, and staging elements as needed, and we were ready to go on Friday.”

When the Saturday concert was over, the crew prepared the stage for storage in place. The stage was stripped; risers and platforms were broken down; the roof and canopy were lowered, and the entire set was wrapped in vinyl on all sides.

It greatly minimized the impact on the Gardens, and, with less hauling in and hauling out, it also reduced the risk of injury to the crew. With everything stowed out of sight behind the vinyl masking, the gear was protected and so were the Descanso Gardens visitors. And camouflage graphics printed on the masking helped the storage area blend in with the surroundings.

In addition to rigging, staging, and lighting equipment, ELS provided POPS with the services of veteran LD and director Hubert Tardif for the duration of the summer series. Tardif programmed and operated the automated lights for Cirque du Soleil's KA show at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. “The stars in this performance are the conductor and her orchestra,” says Tardif. “All else is secondary. The lighting should only serve as a complement to the music. It should not overpower or distract from the orchestra.”

The staging and rigging comprised the stage, tiered risers for the chorus, an 80'×20' black scrim backdrop, two white panels each 10'×20', the aforementioned canopy covering the entire stage, and, of course, those majestic (yet pesky) California oak trees.

On this simple canvas, Tardif designed a lighting plan that incorporated 1kW and 2kW Mole Richardson Fresnels; 12 Color Kinetics ColorBlast® 12 LED fixtures to provide saturated color on the two white cyc panels; eight High End Systems Studio Spot® CMYs; and four HES Studio Color® 575 washes to highlight the conductor and soloists. Ten Electronic Theatre Controls' Source Four® ellipsoidals were also used. A combination of ellipsoidals and PARs were deployed in the trees and foliage for further accent to take advantage of the natural setting.

This year, 30 1kW, 8“ Fresnels and 12 2kW Fresnels were added to showcase the orchestra. The Fresnels, which are typically found on television soundstages, provided a great look and worked well with the roof-canopy.

“The rectangle of Fresnels created quite an effect — a tiara of lights crowning the white-jacketed players below, bathing them in a soft warm light and adding a touch of elegance to the scene,” explains Tardif.

A further challenge to this season's final weekend concert selection included a performance by the California State University, Long Beach, Choir. With no room for them on the stage, the chorus was positioned on risers upstage of the orchestra, behind the backdrop, taking advantage of the see-through scrim. As the lights came up, the chorus was slowly revealed amidst moodily lit foliage, almost floating above the orchestra.

The result, Tardif says, was a “radiating light source, the roof-canopy system, illuminating the orchestra; side panels that changed color on cue to the music; and a scrim backdrop that allowed us to bring the forest setting into the back of the stage and also to provide a window to the chorus. It was very basic, yet quite dramatic.”

Regarding leaving the gear on site, Estrin says, “It made good business, financial, and operations sense to drop the canopy and leave everything in place. Give George Gray and ELS credit for helping us work this out. At the same time, this approach has strengthened our relationship with Descanso Gardens as they see we are working to minimize the impact that our performances have on their location.”

It has been so successful, in fact, that the Pasadena POPS, who will be celebrating their 20th anniversary in 2007, have added a Sunday evening performance to the “Summer Nights” concert series, creating an even brighter sparkle to one of the Crown City's crown jewels.

Michael Friedman is business development director for ELS of Southern California.

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