Why Parks Concerts Are No Picnic for Musicians

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Audience for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at the Naumburg Bandshell in July 2013 Audience for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at the Naumburg Bandshell in July 2013 (Kim Nowacki/WQXR)

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:


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Comments [18]

GlassyGirl from NY

I am surprised at the negative comments by so many patrons, who are complaining about something that is free. I hope they are all buying tickets to the indoor shows! I have a long, long history of attending classical/opera concerts in/around the NY area and appreciate the work it takes to both put on the shows (technically) and play in them. We attended the NY Philharmonics concert on Friday, 7/11 an it was one of the loveliest evenings we had all year. Getting there around 5:30 we were almost at the back of the Great Lawn, at the opposite end of the lawn from the orchestra and, yes, we couldn't hear well, both from the noise of other attendees and the distance from the stage. However, to lay on our blanket, have a picnic, look at the stars and hear strains of music made a fabulous evening for us. If I want a musical performance I buy a ticket to a concert hall. For an evening under the stars with my family in a relaxing, safe and congenial environment I'd go again to a Phil concert in the park.

Aug. 06 2014 10:15 AM
Joanna Barouch from New Jersey

My understanding is that the decision to cancel a NYPHIL concert is not in the hands of the orchestra management but rather is the Central Park Conservancy's call with the NYPD. Yesterday's concert was called off at 2 pm, not exactly last minute. Also, I was there at 5:30 on Friday and the musicians kind of meandered in on their own. No van. Never has been...a bus maybe but no van. Ms Pogrebin obviously did not do her homework and just shot her mouth off as some. " journalists" are wont to do.

Jul. 15 2014 07:52 PM

@David, So, are you OK listening to the live broadcasts? Or does the lack of hall "ambiance" color your listening as well? The live Naumburg performances I've heard are quite good, even with amplification and no "hall" sound.


Jul. 13 2014 07:20 PM
David from Flushing

I have never enjoyed concerts in places with no reverberation. If outdoor performances seem satisfactory, then it is clear that many do not care about acoustics. Then there is the matter of amplification that is so vilified in concert halls and opera houses. Frankly, I would rather listen to a recording than what is offered in the parks.

Jul. 12 2014 04:23 PM

If I'm remembering correctly (and this is going back to the early '80s), don't some instrumentalists have an "outdoor" violin/clarinet, etc., for just these "outdoor" reasons? DD~~

Jul. 12 2014 02:20 AM

@Daniel and The Truth, I'll probably skip the NYPhil in Central Park for just those reasons.

@WQXR, while I understand the difference between underwriting announcements and editorial content, it just seems odd to see them side by side (or close to it) on the website. As for weather, I was at that Naumburg deluge last summer -- and it was handled very professionally, all the way around.


Jul. 11 2014 07:41 PM
The Baron from L.I. City

We stopped going to park concerts years ago for all of the reasons mentioned. One thing that particularly irked me, though, was people who would show up at noon and spread ten blankets right up front to reserve the area for their obnoxious friends who would show up just before concert time with their chilled bottles of champagne and Pelligrino and picnic baskets filled with brie, baguettes and other yuppie staples.

Jul. 11 2014 06:16 PM

@Duck - What you heard are underwriting announcements for Caramoor, which appear separately from the editorial on this website and our airwaves. It's the old saw: the views presented in this commentary do not necessarily reflect the views of station management.

That being said, our segment is not necessarily intended as a negative commentary on outdoor concerts either. Rather, we see it as a look at all of the unpredictable ingredients that make up summer performances.

Thanks for listening.

Jul. 11 2014 03:39 PM

If outdoor concerts are bad for musicians (and I'm not saying they are/aren't), then why this? "WQXR is giving away ... tickets to [concert] ... at The Spanish Courtyard at Caramoor. Enter to win!" DD~~

Jul. 11 2014 02:05 AM
Kitty from Rosendale,NY

Was at a summer concert at the Chautauqua Ampitheatre in 1974. Victor Borge was holding forth and delighting a crowd of thousands. A lovely soprano in a white gown was attempting to sing, waving her hands in front of her mouth to vainly keep the hundreds of insects away. Sometimes she would breathe in several and choke. She was a game trouper, and didn't stop. But her performance was definitely above and beyond the call of duty.

Jul. 10 2014 03:54 PM

Opera Theatre of Montclair in New Jersey has performed outdoors on several occasions so far. Planning for these concerts is challenging on several levels. Firstly, one needs to get all the singers and accompanist to clear their schedules and even arrive at the venue all dressed up and ready to go only to be greeted with a downpour and cancellation (happened twice last summer). We were VERY lucky when asked to perform at an outdoor concert at the Montclair Winter Festival this past February 1 - temperatures were thankfully above freezing! In our case, it would be impractical to provide an acoustic piano, so we have had to borrow portable electric keyboards of varying quality (and varying sustain pedals) then rely on sound engineers to do the rest - opera singers are not usually experts with using microphones ("How close should we stand to the microphone?"). We have also been asked to perform outdoors without mics because "you are opera singers. The audience should be able to hear you." Wrong! All this being said, we were able to reach new audiences and have made several important connections which led to significant donor contributions. This certainly makes it worthwhile.

Mia Riker-Norrie
General Director, Opera Theatre of Montclair

Jul. 10 2014 02:01 PM
The Truth from LES

I was at the Philharmonic last night too. It was a s***show there. Kids running around screaming, crowds of drunken picnickers, loud cellphone conversations during the softest parts in the music. Why not just go to another part of the park and have a picnic? It's completely disrespectful to the musicians and people who want to actually listen.

Jul. 10 2014 09:32 AM
Joe Roma from Binghamton, NY

In Binghamton, NY, we used to have an annual "Pops on the River" concert where the local BC Pops orchestra would literally be set up on a large raft-like stage in the middle of the Chenango River. Thousands of people would attend. The concert began when it was still light out, but as the darkness progressed and the large lights came on, the orchestra would be trying to play with swarms of mayflies, mosquitoes and who knows what swarming around. The music folders and instruments would be plagued with dead bugs by the end of the night, but the crowd loved it!

Jul. 10 2014 09:16 AM
Daniel from Brooklyn, NY

I attended the NY Philharmonic's performance last night in Prospect Park. The weather was accommodating, but I can't say the same for the audience: lots of talking, phone calls, glugging of wine, platoons of kids running around with lightsabers that were being hawked. The music was scarcely audible over the din of picnic-goers -- why did they even come?

Jul. 10 2014 08:50 AM

Hmmm. This, from WQXR's website: "Attending summer's outdoor concerts — from grand operas to parking lot orchestras — is as much a rite of the season as cookouts, fireworks and camps."

'Nuff said? DD~~

Jul. 10 2014 01:20 AM

While I understand that this is a 'Conducting Business' entry, it seems to me that WQXR is trying to have it both ways. "Playing out of doors is difficult."

But isn't WQXR a sponsor of the Naumburg Orchestral Concerts? (Outdoors) Don't they encourage 'tweets' and photos from outdoor concerts? Didn't they list something like "15 Great Outdoor Concert Venues"?


Jul. 10 2014 01:14 AM
Bernie from UWS

Well...musicians aren't being taken out of their natural habitat and strapped to a carriage and forced to trot through Midtown traffic. So the horse carriage comparison is a little off. But I do question why they don't let the players wear short sleeves or even shorts. The music sounds the same either way!

Jul. 09 2014 08:45 PM
Gev Sweeney from Ocean Grove, NJ

Concert-goers don't realize how physically demanding it is to play an instrument. Exerting yourself while dressed up and under lights, roasting in high temps and swimming in humidity is potentially harmful to your health as well as to the performance. Come to think of it, people make more of a fuss over carriage horses working in the heat than they do over musicians working in the heat. It's said the mayor wants to ban the carriage rides. Maybe he should ban outdoor concerts, too?

Jul. 09 2014 06:56 PM

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