One of the rites of summer is the outdoor orchestra concert. Alas, my track record through the years has been that of a drought breaker. Most recently, though we didn’t need the rain, I brought the showers for the Springfield Symphony’s annual appearance at the Springfield Arts Festival. My history with the Columbus Symphony’s Picnic with the Pops was also plagued with showers, and one complete wash out. Last year’s Westerville Symphony Sounds of Freedom concert commenced with wonderful weather, only to have a severe storm develop right over the venue, complete with donner und blitz! So if you are coming to MY outdoor event, bring an umbrella.
(NOTE: Yes, that is a tie-dyed dinner jacket. The program was the legends of rock, featuring the Grateful Dead Symphony. 50th anniversary of Woodstock. Very authentic)
My old friend the late Richard Nolan used to manage the Columbus Veteran’s Memorial Auditorium, and his adage always was “There is a reason why God invented auditoriums!” I often wondered why we questioned that wisdom.
But there are some wonderful outdoor venues, and some great times have been had! For a number of years, I covered for the Cleveland Orchestra, and loved the Blossom Music Center, probably the benchmark for outdoor concert venues. The facilities are magnificent, the acoustics, perfect for outdoors, and the stage is air-conditioned!
Several years ago, the Columbus Symphony, who I served as associate conductor of 28 years, moved from its longtime summer home at Chemical Abstract Services to the Bicentennial Stage at the Columbus Commons. Chem Abs always had a temporary feel to it, although patrons flocked to the space. I remember a crowd of 17000 people one night! I also remember a barrage of 8 howitzer canon lined up along the river, poised for a performance of the 1812 Overture. But the move downtown gave a more permanent feel to the series. The stage backs up to the winter home of the Orchestra, the Ohio Theater, which meant our offices, library, production storage, all were steps away. There are downsides, of course, the space shrinks every year thanks to the continual growth in the neighborhood. Patrons have to pay to park, and the feel is much more urban, and the logistics of shooting big guns are prohibitive.
The Westerville Symphony uses the Rotary Amphitheater at Alum Creek. This space is adjacent to the campus of Otterbein University, the Orchestra’s fulltime home. The City of Westerville Parks and Recreation Department produces an entire series of free concerts during the summer, and the Orchestra appears twice, the Sunday before July 4th, and the closing night bash in August. The setting is lovely, although the sun is in the patrons’ eyes until it goes beyond the shell, which is a bit uncomfortable. The acoustics are also a little strange, with the back row of brass enjoying a huge megaphone.
The most interesting of my current outdoor stages is the Veterans’ Park in Springfield. About 15 years ago, the Arts Council embarked on a campaign to renovate and modernize the outdoor stage, add concession stands, and artist and logistical facilities, and basically turn it into a real outdoor venue. The executive director of the SAC at the time invited me to meet with the architect to discuss the Orchestra’s needs. I thought this was generous as the summer festival involved 6 weekends of free events from cover bands to fully staged musicals, the Orchestra appearing only once. I didn’t hope for, nor expect very much. Imagine my surprise when I walked in to find Pete van Dijk, the architect of the Cleveland Orchestra’s Blossom Music Center!
The stage has marvelous acoustics for the Orchestra to hear themselves, but we are still at the mercy of the sound guy, who is always the bane of any outdoor performer’s existence. Very few have any experience in mixing an orchestra, and all are at the mercy of the elements. Humidity, wind, rain, all reek havoc on the sound. But the setting is gorgeous!
So we endure the humid, hot conditions, the bugs, the rain, we even had a skunk stop for a visit once, all for the idyllic pleasure of our patrons. And sometimes, there is a little good music to take the edge off the requisite fireworks!