Bug spray? Check.
Clamps to secure sheet music? Check.
Dove Bars? And check.
As the Chicago Symphony Orchestra begins its annual summer season at the Ravinia Festival — where it in 1936 — musicians and staff are gearing up for whatever nature brings their way. Dove Bars, actually, are not the musicians’ responsibility but a cooling treat that the festival provides after particularly sweltering rehearsals.
But even fortified with ice cream, ice water and modern stage amenities, CSO musicians know that outdoor music-making isn’t always a picnic. Daniel Gingrich, associate principal horn, remembers performing Schumann’s Konzertstück in F Major for Four Horns and Orchestra one summer evening as the temperature in the pavilion pushed past 100 degrees and the National Weather Service issued a heat advisory.
“We were just dripping,” he recalled. “The humidity also brought bugs out. There were bugs in our faces the whole time, and we had to stand up there and play this solo piece.”
Though many nights are delightfully balmy, CSO musicians must be ready for extremes. Wood instruments can expand or warp. Pitch may be unsettled by heat or cold. Condensation forms on woodwind keys and pads, making the mechanisms temperamental.
Summer is usually the rainiest season in Chicago, and in a normal year, temperatures exceed 90 degrees on an average of 23 days. With climate change, it : Globally, 2019 is on track to be among the hottest years on record.
“Playing the oboe is a challenge under normal indoor circumstances,” said CSO oboe Lora Schaefer in an e-mail, “but playing outside creates a nightmare of epic proportions.” Not only is the oboe susceptible to small changes in humidity and temperature, but its cane reeds respond to slight shifts in barometric pressure. “During a thunderstorm, the pressure will dramatically change, which will cause a huge change in how the reed functions.”
Cynthia Yeh, CSO principal percussion, reports that on muggy evenings drumheads can lose their desired tension. “Many of our heads are [animal] skin heads so they go lower and lower to where it’s unplayable,” she said. “Packing for Ravinia, I bring plastic heads for the snare drum, bongos, congas or tambourine.”
And then there are the insects. “Sometimes a bug” — disguising itself as a whole note or half note — “will hang out on your music,” Yeh said.
Added Stephen Williamson, principal clarinet, jokingly: “We have numerous mosquito graves in our music from past Ravinia seasons. We try to mark the date next to each one for future reference.”
Ravinia operates an emergency watch office staffed by two employees who monitor satellite-based weather software and stay in close contact with local meteorologists. Erik Soderstrom, Ravinia’s artistic producer, said that while the festival has never canceled a performance because of weather, there are procedures for every level of severity.
“If it’s just predicted to rain, you really don’t do much of anything except keep an eye on it,” Soderstrom said. “Almost hilariously, the lawn audience doesn’t seem to mind rain too much. They will continue with their lawn party, rain or shine.” In severe weather, however, the festival has multiple areas of refuge available for patrons.
Before each concert, a sign is posted backstage that indicates either “coats” or “no coats,” signaling when men in the orchestra may take off their white jackets. Typically, the threshold is between 75-77 degrees, said second horn James Smelser, although it varies according to humidity. Air-conditioning units pump some cool air through onstage vents, sometimes supplemented by blowers that Smelser likens to the equipment in the final scene of “E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial.”
Ravinia lore offers numerous tales of resourcefulness. Retired principal flute Donald Peck once performed the flute solo in the Mad Scene from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor during a windstorm. Standing beside him was legendary soprano Joan Sutherland.
“The Mad Scene turned out to be a mad scene for me,” Peck writes in his memoir, The Right Place, The Right Time!: Tales of Chicago Symphony Days. “It was very windy that night, with strong gales coming up on the stage.” Sutherland’s “bright green, diaphanous gown” began swishing all around Peck, at times blocking his music stand. He fortunately had the cadenza memorized. “We laughed about it later backstage,” he added. “Ms. Sutherland rewarded me with a bottle of champagne. I needed it!”
Thunderstorms can add an uncanny drama to the music. Guest conductor Susanna Mälkki appeared while a storm raged during Sibelius’ Second Symphony in 2017. But it’s not only weather that delivers uncertainties. The outdoors bring traffic noise, rumbling Metra trains and perhaps most of irksome of all, the annual residences by the cicadas. Conductor David Zinman was similarly unruffled during a of Brahms’ German Requiem in 1981.
More recently under Zinman, Williamson remembers a performance of Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2 (Age of Anxiety) several years ago. “The opening calls for two clarinets in a pianissimo dynamic,” he said. “Maestro Zinman truly wanted this effect to be mysterious and practically inaudible. We did this until the performance came later that evening. The cicadas were in full chorus and before the Bernstein began, he looked at us and shrugged his shoulders. We knew we had to play at least mezzo-piano/mezzo-forte in order to cut through the excess noise. He winked at us after the opening and clearly knew that we did the right thing considering the circumstances.”
(Longtime Ravinia patrons might recall when the were due to emerge one summer, as part of their 17-year life cycle, the CSO’s season was delayed by two weeks.)
Gringrich, who, away from the French horn is a , says that for all its challenges, outdoor concerts are something people live for after Chicago’s long, difficult winters. “The over-all experience is great, being outdoors and listening to music,” he said. “When conditions are ideal, it’s wonderful.”
A New York-based writer, Brian Wise also is the producer for the CSO Radio broadcasts.
TOP: Patrons on the lawn huddle under umbrellas during a rainy evening at Ravinia. | Photo: Patrick Gipson/Ravinia Festival