I’ve been to my fair share of live music performances, held everywhere from Radio City Music Hall to college dorm rooms. The first concert I saw was the Jonas Brothers in New York City’s Central Park (which 9-year-old me thought was totally epic). Still, I never predicted I’d find myself inside the dome of an iconic telescope, about to listen to a classical music concert.
Yet on a recent Sunday, there I was at the Mt. Wilson Observatory in the San Gabriel Mountains, awaiting the afternoon’s performers: the Zelter String Quartet.
“Be here now for these particular wavelengths of light and sound,” said Dan Kohne, a Mt. Wilson Institute board member, speaking to the audience from a makeshift stage on a deck in the dome. Just then, the steel walls of the dome slid apart, revealing the open sky. The audience ooh-ed and aah-ed as the dome began to slowly rotate and we watched the trees and clouds rolling past us.
On one Sunday each month, Mt. Wilson Observatory hosts a chamber music or jazz concert in the dome, which was founded in 1904 by the Carnegie Institution of Washington and designed by D.H. Burnham. The telescope housed inside it — the Hooker 100-inch telescope — was completed in 1917 and reigned as the world’s largest optical telescope until 1949. Famed astronomer Edwin Hubble used this very telescope to solve the long-debated spiral nebulae question by observing other galaxies to be separate from our own. When I entered the space, I was taken by the sheer size of the telescope, its peak reaching the top of the dome.
The dome itself looks like a UFO that just touched down on Earth. Its stark white metal exterior feels downright extraterrestrial when juxtaposed with the trees and nature surrounding it.
The idea to host live music in the dome was born from a conversation in 2017 between Kohne and Cécilia Tsan, professional cellist and artistic director of the Mt. Wilson Observatory concerts. Kohne described the acoustics in the space as “extraordinary” and urged Tsan to bring in her cello to test it out. So she did. A Facebook video of Tsan playing a song in the dome received 39,000 views.
Kohne and Tsan decided to work together to take advantage of the unique acoustics and create a celebration of music and science.
“Both science and music let us journey into new worlds,” Tsan said.
At the concert, the seats were assembled in a semicircle facing the black-clad musicians: Carson Rick on viola, Allan Hon on cello and Gallia Kastner and Kyle Gilner on violin. A hush fell over the space as they began to play. They captivated the audience with their music, the instruments beautifully melding together and reverberating as one throughout the dome. With each swift move of their bows, the foursome took quick, synchronized breaths. The audience subtly swayed as they played music by Mendelsohn, Puccini and Todd Mason, often with their eyes closed and heads back, overcome with emotion and soaking in the echoing sounds.
I felt a sense of calm throughout the performance, combined with awe at the space itself and its ability to bring so many people together.
“Hearing the acoustics in the dome feels like you’re in direct contact with the universe,” Tsan said. “It’s soothing in a world that’s so chaotic right now.”
The journey to the dome
Beyond the concert, getting to the dome is an experience in itself. First, the drive to Mt. Wilson Observatory can be quite harrowing, with sharp, anxiety-inducing twists and turns through the San Gabriel Mountains. (I was relieved to have made it unscathed.) Once you park in one of the two lots near the entrance, you can either ride a shuttle to the dome or walk. I decided on the latter.
After wandering around for a few minutes looking for the path to the dome, I met Jonathan Vietze, 54, of Orange County, and his friend, Lorenzo Dela Rama, 27, of Los Angeles. They were confused as well, so we decided to walk together along with two others in the same situation. Our group initially followed the arrow of a sign that said “Observatory,” but we somehow found ourselves hopelessly lost, trekking up a steep hill way off the beaten path.
Dela Rama, who was dressed in concert attire — a nice pair of slacks, button-down shirt, dress shoes — said he wasn’t expecting to hike that day.
“I’m hoping it’s worth it,” Vietze said between breaths.
Luckily, we ran into a Mt. Wilson Observatory employee who asked, “How’d you all even get up here?” and pointed us in the right direction.
Once we found the dome, we were faced with a 53-step staircase leading to the performance level. I was a bit out of breath by stair 50, likely because the air on Mt. Wilson is thinner due to its elevation.
“It was such a unique experience and I will remember it always,” Vietze said after the concert. “The wandering hike there is part of that memory.”
If you go
More concerts are planned for the coming months. On Sept. 10, the Long Beach Symphony Sextet will perform in the dome, and on Oct. 8, the Los Angeles Reed Quintet will take the stage. Concerts are held at 3 and 5 p.m. There is also a reception outside the dome from 4 to 5 p.m., offering refreshments. Tickets for the show are $55 and must be purchased online and in advance.
Trails and lookout points are also available for guests to enjoy before the show. Consider printing or screenshotting a map before you arrive, since there’s no phone service on the mountain. Pro tip: Make sure to wear comfortable shoes if you plan to explore.
Mt. Wilson Observatory’s Cosmic Cafe is open on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., selling fresh sandwiches, drinks and a variety of other treats. The cafe is located in the pavilion overlooking the parking lot at the entrance to the observatory.