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Leonard Slatkin Headshot

Weather or Not?

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The big story in music this past week had more to do with the playing conditions as opposed to the music itself.

A violin soloist in Philadelphia was reduced to tears while performing the Tchaikovsky Concerto. This same performer went to San Francisco two days later and froze her strings off. The New York Philharmonic was performing in a park and cancelled the second half of their concert due to the heat, prompting the audience to shout, "We want Dvořák."

Al fresco entertainment has been a part of the American musical landscape for quite some time. Orchestras were hardly the first to realize that there was potential for great numbers of people to come hear them. For some, there are venues that are legendary. Tanglewood, for the Boston Symphony, Ravinia for Chicago and the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, for example. Other orchestras created facilities for the ensembles in the 1960's, Blossom for Cleveland and Saratoga for the Philadelphians.

All these and so many more have one thing in common: they are all subject to the whims of Mother Nature.

Although some of the audience, as well as the orchestra are protected from the elements with a covered facility, they all have large seating on the lawn. Only a few orchestras play their summer festivals indoors. Some are left entirely uncovered. Because of the iffy nature of the environment, many musicians bring alternate instruments to rehearsals and performances. After all, why should one risk any damage to a $3 million Stradivarius?

Covered or not, the weather creates all sorts of problems for the musician. It can actually be pleasant but the humidity high, which forces the musicians to struggle for pitch and the water produced. The opposite can occur when conditions are too dry. In these cases instruments are actually humidified with all manner of strings and other implements.

On one occasion, I was performing at Detroit's Meadow Brook Festival. This is one of those covered venues with lawn seating. A torrential rainstorm along with very high winds blew into the facility and onto the stage. We ducked for cover. At Ravinia a tornado warning was issued during a rehearsal and we were all whisked to a protective shelter. The concert went on with only half of the music rehearsed. In Aspen, Colorado the rain was so deafening on the tent that we had to halt the performance after one movement of the Fifth Tchaikovsky symphony. I was even rained out at the Hollywood Bowl!

As for other detriments, wind can play a disastrous role in outdoor concerts. Musicians must find creative ways to keep the music on the stands. This also apples to conductors, who have to turn a page every 12 bars or so. I once led a performance of Verdi's Nabucco in Provence. This was in an old amphitheater and the summer can also entertain a "mistral," a very sudden and severe windstorm. Although there was no rain, parts were flying all over the place. I had the assistant conductor hold down the pages of the score as we progressed through the opera.

Yes, we all want to reach the broadest possible audience but at what expense?

One must feel sympathy for the musicians, but at the same time, especially if it is a paying public, it is possible to understand why they feel shortchanged. Even though there are contractual rules about the conditions, common sense must prevail on everyone's parts. If the music cannot be properly performed, what is the point to even attempt to play?

Suffering for one's art is one thing. No need to add any other distractions.