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When Musicians Confront Mother Nature : Concerts combine concertos with bugs, wind, rain

In Redlands, it’s the bugs. At Hollywood Bowl and the Getty Museum, it’s the humidity. In St. Louis, it’s the rain. In Finger Lakes, N.Y., it’s the cold. In Wolf Trap Farm, Va., it’s the heat--and the bugs.

For audiences at outdoor musical events, the fickle aspects of Mother Nature may only be a nuisance. But when musicians perform outdoors, they must be prepared to overcome myriad obstacles, including wind, rain, heat or cold, humidity, invading insects and invading helicopters. As the summer season heats up--the Hollywood Bowl opens Monday--musicians across the nation will be trying to keep their cool under sometimes trying conditions.

Professional musicians prepare for al fresco concerts with not only their musical skills, but also a variety of supplies from paper (to dry up water-soaked pads) to clothespins (to keep their music from blowing away). They also say they need a combination of creativity, resourcefulness and a good sense of humor.

At the Redlands Bowl, where “the elements tend to be very kind to us,” conductor Frank Fetta recalls a piano concert that was bugged by too many insects. When the pianist’s fingers came crashing down for a loud chord, the result was a “carnage of bugs on the keyboard.”

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At Hollywood Bowl, the shell protects most players from some of the elements, but it cannot eliminate the effects of changes in humidity. On a humid night, the brass players can frequently be observed blowing the moisture out of their instruments. The woodwind players will run cloth swabs through their instruments. Even so, the condensation sometimes builds up so much that the pads will stick, or one of the tone holes will become blocked, or reeds will dry out, causing a wrong note or a gurgling sound.

String players too encounter problems. “A lot of Philharmonic players,” notes violinist Mitchell Newman, “have a problem keeping their bows tightened enough.”

String players who use Baroque instruments find themselves particularly vulnerable to humidity changes. The Los Angeles Baroque Orchestra gives an outdoor summer series at the Getty Museum, and director Gregory Maldonado notices that the gut strings his players use tend to absorb a great deal of moisture as the air becomes more damp, and this causes the intonation to change. Moreover, the pegs swell, making it even more difficult to tune the instrument. He also notes that the bow hairs become slick, so that “you think you’re making sound, but it does not really carry very far.”

Humidity can be a problem in Los Angeles, but it is worse elsewhere, notes Philharmonic co-principal flutist Janet Ferguson, who served as principal flutist of the San Antonio Symphony. “The humidity in South Texas is a thousand times worse than anything here,” she says. “I would use cigarette paper a lot there,” explaining that the paper has proved especially effective in sopping up water that has accumulated in the pads.

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Rainouts occur only rarely at the Hollywood Bowl, but at other venues across the country they are a frequent occurence. Dale Hikawa, the Philharmonic’s associate principal violist, remembers her days with the St. Louis Symphony, which performed an outdoor summer series. “Rainstorms were numerous. In St. Louis, we had half a dozen concerts rained out each summer.” When it would start raining during a rehearsal or concert, the musicians found creative ways to protect their instruments, such as buttoning their shirts between the body of the instrument and the fingerboard, or covering the instruments with plastic bags.

Before the present facility at Finger Lakes Performing Arts Center in Canandaigua, N.Y., was constructed a few years ago, the uncovered stage left the orchestra entirely exposed to the elements. Rain was a constant worry for John Parkhurst, the facility’s production manager. “I used to have a hotline directly to the weatherman,” he said. Even with the more protected stage now in use, staff members still need to be prepared for any change in weather conditions, such as an unexpected combination of rain and wind.

Because temperature has an effect on the pitch of virtually every instrument, a cool evening will make it necessary for players to make frequent adjustments as the pitch of their instruments, and others around

them, changes. Philharmonic violinist Barry Socher says: “The ear is working overtime.”

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The Philharmonic rehearses at the Bowl during the day, when temperatures can get into the high 80s and 90s. But, having gotten used to playing in the midday heat, the players must later play that same music under much cooler conditions. “Intonation during the heat of the day is considerably different than in the night when it’s colder by sometimes 20 degrees,” says co-principal clarinetist Michele Zukovsky. “We have to make provisions for that.”

To mitigate the effects of cold air, the musicians at the Bowl are all provided with heat lamps, which help keep both fingers and instruments at a more tolerable temperature. But a soloist does not have that luxury. When Zukovsky performed the Copland Concerto one summer, the air was particularly cold that evening, which brought her pitch down. “I gave the strings my A, and that whole piece was tuned to my clarinet, which was pretty flat. People were amazed (that I could play in tune on such a cold night); it’s because the strings lowered for me.”

String players seem to have an easier time correcting intonation. “We can adjust to the temperature changes more easily than a wind player can, either by our fingers or by tuning the instrument,” Hikawa says.

Of course summer temperatures in Southern California never get really cold. At Finger Lakes, musicians have endured some memorably cold nights. Glen West, who served as production coordinator for the Rochester Philharmonic from 1982 to 1987, recalls an evening on which the temperature dropped into the 40s. “We had to go out and jerry-rig heat lamps across the stage. The facility has heat panels across the ceiling, but they were utterly insufficient, so we had this whole truss of sun lamps. It was still bitterly cold.”

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How could an audience endure such cold? “What audience?” West laughed. “There was hardly anyone there.”

While cold may be the concern at some locations, heat is the bane at others. At Wolf Trap Farm in Virginia, summer nights are generally quite warm and “the stage might be 10-15 degrees warmer,” according to Ann McKee, Wolf Trap’s vice president of programming. Besides affecting intonation and creating discomfort for the performers, it tends to bring out the insects. And because insects are attracted to light, it is often the soloist who suffers most.

Fetta also recalls a violin soloist who was performing a difficult contemporary piece at Redlands Bowl. Because of the composition’s complexity, she was using the music in performance. “A bug flew in her eyes and it really threw her for a few bars,” he said.

Sometimes a musician’s best defense is a sense of humor. McKee remembers a time that Jean-Pierre Rampal was giving a recital at Wolf Trap and a couple of bees kept circling him. “He just stopped what he was playing and began playing ‘Flight of the Bumblebee.’ ”

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Consider, for example, even that soft breeze that feels so refreshing to audiences. To the musicians, a gust of wind can spell disaster if the music is blown off the stand. To guard against this, nearly all musicians who perform outside secure the music with pins or clips. But to secure it well, a player must use several clips. And for every page turn--in a typical symphony there are many--the player must remove the clips, turn the page and clip the music again. In the process, the musician has dropped out of the performance for perhaps 30 seconds.

In some cases, the wind can literally blow the sound away. This is of particular concern to flutists, notes the Philharmonic’s Ferguson. Before a recent Ojai Festival performance, she felt a strong cross breeze, and was concerned about her sound being lost during the performance. She decided that if the wind should pick up, “I would duck behind the stand, and hope that the stand would block the wind.”

Some animals apparently want nothing more than to hear fine music, as the dog who seemed to have been moved by a performance of Gershwin’s Concerto in F at the Redlands Bowl. Others seem to have simply gotten lost; Hikawa remembers a raccoon who “came out on the violin side, and, looking a little bewildered, peered out at the audience, scurried underneath the piano, went over to the basses, listened for a while, then scurried off.”

But it is man-made distractions that most people--musicians and listeners alike--find most difficult to accept. Bowl patrons have come to expect, but not welcome, the occasional overflight of an airplane or helicopter or the blare of an errant automobile alarm. At Finger Lakes, the sound of Formula One race cars at a nearby track sometimes accompanies the music of Brahms. Fetta once had to confront young skateboarders whizzing behind him during a rehearsal.

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But MaryAnn Bonino, director of the Da Camera Society, could hardly have been prepared for the gunshots that punctuated the music at Avalon’s Bird Park during the recent Catalina Festival of Chamber Music. “It sounded like we were being attacked,” she recalls. The park, as it turned out, was adjacent to a firing range.

Even with distractions, complications and little disasters that happen from time to time, most musicians say they find al fresco performing very pleasant.

“It’s a nice change of pace,” violinist Newman says. And as Fetta remarks, “there is serious music being made out there, and it’s done in a manner that’s very amiable.” Even when Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate.


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