Since 1988, Pacific Symphony Orchestra (PSO) has performed its Summer Festival at the place once quaintly known as Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre (may it rest in peace), now commercially called Verizon Wireless Amphitheater (we'll just see how long that lasts). By either name, this venue doesn't have the same history, status and funky arched proscenium as the Hollywood Bowl, but the PSO's outdoor site is certainly more convenient and less traffic-ridden. And the orchestra itself is starting to receive some of the same acclaim as the LA Philharmonic. It's true!
The Summer Festival offers folks—more than 44,000 annually—a chance to gather with family and friends, schmooze clients, or romance lovers with relaxing music, picnicking and stargazing. Yes, stars are still somewhat visible, despite the ever-expanding Irvine Spectrum Center and its searchlight squadron.
Starting on the Fourth of July, this year's season includes three thunderous firework displays in its five-concert lineup.
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Vocalist/dancer Ann Hampton Callaway stars in the Independence Day opener, Star-Spangled Swing! Then it's Carnival of the Animals (July 21), named after Camille Saint-Sans' musical trip to the zoo. On Aug. 11, NASA projections are screened with Gustav Holst's The Planets, an homage to most—minus Earth and Pluto—of the solar system. Bolero! (Aug. 25) features Maurice Ravel's epic "Bolero," which a feisty old English teacher of mine once proclaimed—with a knowing glimmer in her eye—to be one of the most erotic pieces she had ever heard.
And finally, the finale: Tchaikovsky Spectacular! The staple of outdoor concerts everywhere, Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky's booming "1812 Overture" has closed the Summer Festival since before its official inception. (PSO performed a trial concert of the piece in 1987 to gauge local interest.) Coaxed into writing it for a large sum, the Russian composer described this commemoration of Russia's defeat of Napoleon—with its cannons and fireworks—as "very loud and noisy." And you know what? He was right.
Gates open two hours before the concerts for picnicking. Coming early is a particularly good idea if you have the cheap seats, way up in the grassy terrace. While it might be tempting to stake a claim to a choice spot and not move your butt again until after the concert is over, picnicking there is a risky endeavor. The slope is steep—so steep that preventing your cup from tipping over requires a serious balancing act. A final note of caution: spreading out a blanket before sitting down is highly advisable. Given that there are often rock concerts the night before, you never know what might have escaped the eyes and trash bags of the cleanup crew.
Pacific Symphony Orchestra's Summer Festival at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, 8808 Irvine Center Dr., Irvine, (714) 755-5799; www.pacificsymphony.org. Season runs July 4-Sept. 8. Gates open at 6 p.m.; concerts, 8 p.m. $18-$67; season tickets, $100-$300.