Why Parks Concerts Are No Picnic for Musicians

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Mother Nature is unpredictable, as WQXR was reminded last summer in a broadcast of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in Central Park. Heavy rain arrived halfway through a Haydn symphony and musicians and station recording engineers were forced to pack it in quickly. Of course, outdoor summer concerts present many hazards: relentless mosquitoes, noisy airplanes, chatty audiences, and stages baked by the afternoon sun.

Bad weather can also lead to substandard performances, with wayward intonation and unfocused playing. It can occasionally be dangerous for players and their instruments (varnish on string instruments turns sticky; seams can come unglued). Last year, the New York Philharmonic performed only half of a concert at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx due to the heat, and the crowd got ugly, booing and chanting "We want Dvorak."

Despite these challenges, many orchestras say the concerts absolutely necessary. In this podcast we look at the challenges of al fresco performing with these three guests:

  • Robin Pogrebin, culture reporter, New York Times, who recently covered the New York Philharmonic's parks concerts
  • Nardo Poy,violist with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
  • Tito Muñozconductor and music director of the Phoenix Symphony

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

Segment Highlights:

Pogrebin on the value of outdoor concerts: "Something that seems bucolic and relatively simple actually has a complex operation that enables it behind the scenes. Speaking with Alan Gilbert, the music director of the New York Philharmonic, he said 'it's one of the most important things we do.' There is this real emphasis now on culture for the people."

Poy on extreme heat and humidity: "For the musicians, the most difficult part is if it rains or if it's so hot and humid, it makes it really difficult to play. The extreme humidity, I've experienced anywhere including when Orpheus was in Cartagena, Colombia. We had so much condensation on our instruments, it made it impossible for the bow to  grab the string and get the tone out."

Muñoz on bug infestations: "I don't know if you've ever seen fish flies but they just swarm. We unfortunately got hit by that during one of our concerts. We actually had to stop the concert because it was getting so bad. Every page that I turned I was crunching about a hundred of these bugs."

Poy on a particularly heavy rainstorm: "The sound of the water hitting the top of the tent literally wiped out the sound of any music. Poor Mark, having learned this concerto, basically half of it was inaudible. We refer to it as the Marcel Marceau performance."

Muñoz on the upside of an outdoor dance performance: "As the lights were coming up, [the dancers] were hearing the crickets and that set the scene even more realistically for them. In a way, it sometimes adds to the performance."

Pogrebin on rain policies: The Philharmonic does not call off a concert for rain until the musicians get in the van to go to the venue. So it's really down to the wire because they want the show to go on."

Weigh in: Listen to the segment above and share your outdoor music war stories in the comments box below: