Poll: Is it Ethical for Musicians to Play During a Heat Wave?

Friday, July 26, 2013 - 01:00 PM

The New York Philharmonic at Van Courtlandt Park in the Bronx on July 17, 2012. (Kim Nowacki/WQXR)

Although temperatures have dipped this week in the New York City area, the heat wave that enveloped much of the Northeastern U.S. and parts of Europe recently has made for some challenging moments on classical concert stages.

At the BBC Proms in London, musicians have battled soaring temperatures inside the Royal Albert Hall as the city has faced its first prolonged heatwave since 1997. The BBC reported Thursday on a performance of Wagner's three-hour Das Rheingold in which musicians sweated in heavy tuxes and gowns while the building’s Victorian-era ventilation system struggled to keep up.

Reaction on social media was swift and lively, with some questioning the decision to stick with formal attire and others expressing admiration for the musicians' focus.


A different scene played out in New York last week. On Tuesday, July 16, the New York Philharmonic performed only half of its outdoor concert at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx due to the heat, prompting audience boos and chants of "We want Dvorak," referring to the scrapped portion of the program.

(WQXR is a broadcast partner of the BBC Proms and the New York Philharmonic.)

And at Longwood Gardens near Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Orchestra canceled a sound-check rehearsal due to the heat, and then went on with a performance featuring violinist Nicola Benedetti as temperatures soared into the upper 90s. Philadelphia Inquirer music critic (and Operavore contributor) David Patrick Stearns described Benedetti's challenges: “For all of her apparent poise, she was on the verge of tears by the end of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto's first movement: Her neck was so sweaty she couldn't maintain solid positioning of her violin."

Summer concerts are often wild cards, with the potential for pounding rains, tornado scares and score-blowing gales. Some would argue that other professionals, such as construction workers or mail carriers, have it far worse. But high temperatures can also lead to substandard performances, with wayward intonation and unfocused playing. How do you think orchestras should deal with the hot weather? Take our poll and share your thoughts below.


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Comments [11]

Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

I have performed in my 20s in a theater in July and August in New York in a record high temperature that made my all wool heavy costume of the era of the play set in the 1600s feel like a form of torture since I hafd to be on stage for over two hours running about and at the close singing a high D flat to close the opera. THIRTY performances and I felt that stamina and many, many cold drinks were the only "first aid," the air conditioning in the theater being overwhelmed. Better solution to have concerts opted for an indoors venue with ADEQUATE AIR CONDTIONING. I am a Wagnerian heldentenor [heroic tenor] so of course I should be able to muster the courage to go on even if the audience suffering the same high temperature would prefer a change of vennue [sica !]

Jul. 31 2013 09:31 AM
Floria from nyc

If I remember correctly, doesn't the orchestra have "summer suits"? If that's not appealing, I'd rather have the concert postponed to a better date. If it can happen it should happen. If not, it's a loss for us. I smell the baby step of starting to change the formal attire of the orchestra.

Jul. 29 2013 02:16 PM
Jon Teske from Maryland

I am a non-pro player in three orchestras. I am also a heart attack survivor and am age 71. When I was in my 20's, I played in a symphony that did a lot of outdoor concerts...until we played one in full sun with an official temp of 97 degrees. Even though I was in the best of health at the time, I resolved that I would not do any outdoor concerts in greater than mid-70's temperature. In fact, since I had the heart attack 20 years ago, I haven't played any outdoor concerts. There have been several times we men have taken off our suit jackets (or tux jackets) for indoor concerts because of hot lights, inadequate or broken A/C or whatever. We cannot play to our standards when we are dripping in sweat.

Jul. 28 2013 01:57 PM
Digoweli from New York City

More to the point, how about the health of a $100,000 violin? Or for the soloist a million dollar stringed instrument? We had the problem a few years ago in NYCity with an opera orchestra. Extreme heat and cold can damage instruments. As for the people? Orchestras and soloists are virtuoso athletes. But the senior age of many performers makes the temperature extremes problematic at best and could be dangerous for their health. Great musicians often play into their seventies and beyond as do conductors. But doing in so in desert conditions is more conducive to lizards than to art and a sustainable life. They've already given up everything for their Art. That's enough in my opinion. Digoweli

Jul. 28 2013 12:11 PM
Valko Geogiev

More unethical to expect musicians to wear all those clothes in that temperature. Would the musicians like to share their arts if they get to wear flip flop, tank top, shorts, and have access to ice cold beer/cola?

Jul. 27 2013 06:55 PM

Get a consensus from the performers - proceed, even if they play and no one shows up. The musicians get paid whether they show up or not - letting the body know ahead of time.
I'd like to hear more about the Willow Park concerts in the heat - re effects on wool-clothed players ...
News reports of the time ...
But then - we know that weather/climate is also a state-of-mind as well as body... People live in 100degree heat - without air conditioning - less and less thanks to profit/advertising.

Jul. 27 2013 03:55 PM

I agree it's a labor issue. But as musicians we must think of our ability to give a good performance and how the heat and sweat will affect our instrument or voice. It's good if all can agree to perform but tuning will be tricky, wooden instruments swelled with the humidity, and so on.

Jul. 27 2013 12:08 PM
Barry Owen Furrer from Memory Lane

As Longwood Gardens was mentioned in the piece, the largest musical venue for summer concerts 100+ years ago in the United States was not far from there - Willow Grove Park. Willow Grove attracted the finest bands and orchestras of the day with names like Sousa, Damrosch, Pryor, Herbert, Wassili Leps, Frederick Stock, and Conway. The Sousa Band for example, would play four concerts a day in heavy wool uniforms and caps for weeks at a time under an open air pavilion in the blazing heat of August attracting 10 to 15 thousand people at each performance. The major difference from that period to now is air conditioning - you didn't miss what you never had.

Jul. 26 2013 08:18 PM
Gev Sweeney from Ocean Grove, New Jersey

If the performers were animals performing in near-100F heat, charges of cruelty might have been leveled against the "owners."

Jul. 26 2013 08:03 PM
Daniel Polowetzky from NYC

This is not primarily an ethical issue. It is a labor issue.
The audience may choose to leave or not show up. The musicians may not be paid. They should file a grievance!

Jul. 26 2013 02:36 PM
Berky from MA

Never outdoors. Worst possible idea. Shows contempt for the audience. Forget about the performers, it is the listeners who really suffer.

Jul. 26 2013 01:42 PM

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