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Can classical music work outdoors?

Missouri Symphony Society

Classical music seems like a genre that was made to be performed indoors. Symphonic music was born in the chambers of European royalty and in Catholic churches. The music was created by patrons who wanted to support the arts and also demonstrate their largesse. Take the classical music out of the concert hall and what do you have?

For years now, cities like Columbia have offered outdoor symphonic concerts. A primary rationale for these outdoor events is to reach a new and younger audience where they are. If a young potential listeners won’t see a symphony at the Missouri Theatre, then Columbia’s own Missouri Symphony Society (MOSS) wants to take the show to them.

Last month, MOSS completed another season of Hot Summer Nights, its outdoor performance series. This season included show tunes, popular music and selections from the symphonic repertoire.

MOSS Executive Director Chris Campbell explained why his organization takes classical performance out of the theatre and into outdoor spaces and other non-traditional venues:

If you don’t take classical music to the people, it will die. Younger audiences need encouragement to see this music. It is music they are already familiar with from video games and popular culture. Maybe the ornateness of the Missouri Theatre can be intimidating to seeing a classical performance. Ticket prices may be too high or the style of dress can intimidate younger audiences into staying away from classical music. With the outdoor concerts we aim to reach a new audience that might fall in love and then develop into a long-long appreciation for classical music.

There are precedents in recent American history for outdoor performance of the classical repetoire. Early in the 20th century, community and universitybands played marches on municipal bandshells and at sporting events. Wind instruments are especially suited these environments because their sound can carry across distances, said MU School of Music director Robert Shay.

A singer especially needs some kind of acoustical help in order to project. As soon as you step outside your voice is going to travel a very short distance without any reverb and not be heard… A lot of the most well-known outdoor performance venues for classical music have provided acoustical treatments for the performers including shells.

There are three major American outdoor performance spaces dedicated to classical music performance: Massachusetts’ Tanglewood, the Chicago-area’s Ravinia and Colorado’s Aspen Music Festival.  Artistic Director of Columbia’s Odyssey Chamber Music Series’ Ayako Tsuruta said:

The programming of outdoor concerts depends on the facility. If it comes fully equipped with audio system already in place for professional presentations (i.e. Aspen, Ravinia and Tanglewood), then any composition is possible. If the venue is not audio enhanced, it would still be possible, but the satisfaction of the concert will be limited to how well the sound travels to the audience outside. If this is the case, the programs may be limited to what we are already accustomed to hearing outdoors, such as marching band music or something similar with lots of strong beats and easy to catch pulses.

Temperature is a major factor in how well classical music performance “fits” outdoors. Humans do not function at their best in weather extremes and classical performers are no exception. Sometimes they can say 'no' when offered to play in extreme weather. For those that do play outside, recorded tracks are often used. Beyonce lip-synced the National Anthem at Barack Obama’s 2008 inauguration, held in January. And Classical musicians Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman readily admitted to playing alongside a recorded track at the January 2009 inauguration. Temperatures were near 30 degrees at the performers’ scheduled time.

Dr. Shay of the MU School of Music reinforced the concern about playing under extreme temperatures noting, “Musicians with fine instruments may have concerns playing in too cold or too hot a temperature that could damage the instruments."

When climate cooperates and amplification is available, outdoor performance can work well. As summer winds down so do many outdoor music performances of all kinds.

Did you see any live music out of doors this summer? Did you enjoy it in the same way you enjoy live music viewed from an upholstered seat in a climate controlled theater? Let us know in the comments below!

Trevor serves as KBIA’s weekday morning host for classical music. He has been involved with local radio since 1990, when he began volunteering as a music and news programmer at KOPN, Columbia's community radio station. Before joining KBIA, Trevor studied social work at Mizzou and earned a masters degree in geography at the University of Alabama. He has worked in community development and in urban and bicycle/pedestrian planning, and recently served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Zambia with his wife, Lisa Groshong. An avid bicycle commuter and jazz fan, Trevor has cycled as far as Colorado and pawed through record bins in three continents.
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