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.”