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Meet the pair who ignite the Hollywood Bowl's fireworks show

by Anny Celsi | Off-Ramp®

Fireworks erupt during the finale as Gustavo Dudamel makes his Hollywood Bowl debut as director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Los Angeles on Saturday, Oct. 3, 2009. The 28-year-old Venezuelan conductor was welcomed with a free community concert entitled "¡Bienvenido Gustavo!" Dudamel conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op 125. (AP Photo/Jason Redmond) Jason Redmond/AP

Some come for the music, some for the picnic. But for many Angelenos, Summer at the Hollywood Bowl is all about the fireworks. Setting off fireworks to live music is a performance in itself — helmed by pyrotechnician Eric Elias and score reader Sara Hiner.

On a weekday night in Hollywood, Eric Elias and Sara Hiner rehearse their score: Aaron Copland's "Hoedown." Elias counts out loud, as each number signals when he'll push a button that fires off the fireworks with the music.

While Hiner marks the score, Elias works out the cues to go with the fireworks display he has in his head.  

"That's 40... well, whenever he starts up again, that's 41," Elias says to Hiner.

Eric's remote firing device is about the size of a desk phone. It’s linked to a bigger, refrigerator-sized box backstage that blasts the fireworks skyward. It's all controlled by a red button, of course.

Hiner, a classically trained bassoonist, both reads the score and watches the conductor in order to call out the cues. But with live music, there can always be surprises. 

"I've sort of jokingly had this argument with a few conductors over the years," says Elias. "No matter what they tell you, if he has one cup of coffee for rehearsal and two cups of coffee before the show, they play faster."

That's where Hiner comes in.

"I can follow the conductor. Where it gets interesting is where we bring in collaboration concerts. When rock and roll bands come in, and somebody decides to take an extra solo, or forgets a line, or completely changes what they're doing midstream," says Hiner, "then we have to get a little creative."

Hiner's debut as a score reader was like a scene from a movie. It was during a 2008 Bowl show. Hiner was backstage, managing the musicians for the Los Angeles Philharmonic when Elias came in, panicking. The original score reader had just gotten sick and Elias scrambled for a replacement. 

In a hurry, Hiner started learning the entire score to "Not the Messiah," a musical by comedian Eric Idle. 

"It's not something that's in the standard repertoire for musicians, so I was pretty much sight-reading," Hiner says. "And I guess the closest thing you can describe is stage fright."

Hiner and Elias have been working side by side ever since. "The score reader I work with is invaluable to us being able to get the job done that we do," says Elias. "There are no computers involved — it's my score reader and I, and she keeps me on track."

Because fireworks only get deployed once, Elias designs every program completely in his head. And he looks forward to watching the show as much as anyone else. 

"For most of the concerts, other than "1812," that night, the entire audience, along with me are seeing that fireworks show to that music for the very first time in the world anywhere — except in my head," he says. "So our work literally goes up in smoke."

If you want to see the fireworks for yourself, there's still a chance: the Los Angeles Philharmonic will perform Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring Suite" and more at the Hollywood Bowl this Thursday evening, Sept. 4.

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