UCLA Bruin Marching Band to Play Opening Night of the Hollywood Bowl’s 100th Season

3 min read

The Hollywood Bowl will open its 100th Season with a bang on Friday, June 3. It is a night featuring standout conductor Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic, Youth Orchestra Los Angles (YOLA), jazz/classical saxophone legend Branford Marsalis, pop teen sensation Let It Happen, and an original fanfare written by legendary composer John Williams.

The headlining act is Gwen Stefani backed up by the LA Philharmonic and a special performance with the UCLA Marching Band.

“Playing for the centennial season of the Hollywood Bowl, that’s a big deal” said Matt Espinoza, senior drum major. Espinoza grew up in neighboring Santa Monica, played trombone in the SaMoHi band, and was a UCLA fan as long as he could remember. “It helps remind you that you are part of something bigger than yourself.”

The marching band’s invitation to the Hollywood Bowl follows a decade and a half of high-profile success. The band has traveled internationally, playing in Hong Kong for the Chinese New Year Parade in 2006 and 2008, then to Nagoya, Japan for the Annual Ekitopia Festival Parade in 2010 and 2018, and to Taiwan for the Taoyuan International Band Festival in 2016. Known for their “Solid Gold Sound,” they have opened for the Rolling Stones and have been featured on popular albums including those by the English rock band Muse and the K-pop group BTS.

But the magic of the UCLA Marching Band isn’t just to be found in its world-wide fame. It also comes from their bread-and-butter work.

“Playing the Pac-12 games, that’s been an amazing experience,” said drum major Nellie Kamenitsa-Hale. Growing up in Oak Park, Kamenista-Hale played competitive softball and also clarinet with her school’s marching band. She and her father bonded over sports, watching football and basketball together. March Madness was always a special time.  “In high school, my friends and I used to check on March Madness games at school, and then race home to watch them,” she recalled.

So it was a special experience for her when she traveled to Portland this past March to direct the band while the UCLA basketball team played against Akron and St. Mary’s en route to the Sweet Sixteen. “To be on the headset with the team that directs all of the activities around the game, that was special.” 

Sporting events are still only part of the UCLA Marching Band’s busy schedule. And that is part of the band’s appeal for its members.

“Marching band is a community,” said Matt Espinoza. “Everybody who is in the band wants to be there. It’s an exciting energy.” Espinoza, who started off playing trombone before becoming a drum major, has traveled nationally with the marching band, and been in professional recording studios with his bandmates. “I really cherish the friends I’ve made here. College wouldn’t have been the same without them.”

The UCLA marching band typically does not take on special events this late in the academic calendar, with finals looming and commencement just around the corner, said Ken Fisher, associate director. But given the toll that the pandemic has taken on live music performances, this gig was too good to pass up.

“We’ll actually be playing the Bowl two weekends in a row,” said Fisher. “Both on Friday, June 3 for their opening night, and then on Saturday, June 11 for the 101 Festival.” The 101 Festival will feature a Battle of the Bands, with UCLA’s “Solid Gold Sound” facing off against crosstown rival USC’s band. USC’s band will also be on the stage with UCLA’s for the opening night.

“We always look forward to that opportunity,” said junior drum major Nellie Kamenitsa-Hale. What opportunity, exactly? “To compete against our closest neighbors, whether it’s in academics or music, or…” Kamenista-Hale’s voice trailed off, replaced by a slight smile. “Or whatever they want to compete in.”

She may have left competitive sports behind in high school, but the competitive edge has not dulled. “We’ll just let the chips fall where they may,” she said.

UPDATE: Read the Variety recap of the extravaganza:

“It takes a lot to overshadow Gwen Stefani, the LA Phil, Gwen Stefani with the LA Phil, a pair of world-class ballet dancers, Branford Marsalis performing the film music of John Williams, and Williams making a surprise appearance to conduct his own world-premiere piece. But the combined army of the USC and UCLA bands nearly managed to do it with what was billed as a historic, first-time-ever collab, performed in the service of stretching Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” out to nearly 10 minutes as fireworks went off over the bandshell.”