Classical: Orchestral manoeuvres in the park

It seems to be a traditional British occupation to combine discomfort with culture. This summer thousands of us will flock to listen to al fresco classics in the cold, the wind and the rain. Have we taken leave of our senses? By Ian Pillow
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
A crowd is gathering on the pavement, looking up at the sky and pointing excitedly at a wing-shaped object hurtling towards them: "Is it a bird?" "Is it a plane?" "No it's... the viola part of `Superman'!" A cry of recognition goes up as the pages scud crazily across the bleak grey sky, carried by the bitterly cold northerly gale as they wing their way towards the Isle of Wight. Yes, it's open-air concert time again.

Maybe it's part of a British fantasy that our island in summer is really a sub-tropical paradise occasionally inconvenienced by the odd unseasonable shower and coolish breeze. We optimistically grow palm trees in our front gardens, call our seaside "Riviera" and barbecue under a fig-tree which is clinging to semi-survival against the garage wall. And we book well in advance for open-air concerts. Strong evidence of this fantasy is shown by the fact that the box office is busiest when the sun shines. This sun is the real thing; cold and rain are just figments of a pessimistic imagination.

Then the long-anticipated concert arrives and, blow me, the odd unseasonable downpour ("organised rain" is the latest Met Office buzzword) and cold gale coincidentally organises itself over the very stately home where the concert is taking place. People sit there in anoraks and parkas, wear several layers of vests and thermals and two pairs of trousers. That's the orchestra I'm referring to (I've even found a pair of gloves that play semi-quavers).

The audience, in addition, have acquired blankets, sleeping bags, even tents. That phone call to the box office made in a moment of euphoric optimism was soon followed by a trip to Millet's for essential supplies.

Seasoned open-air concert goers plan their evening with military precision. I'm sure they pay an advance visit to the venue to do a recce and, compass in hand, draw a sketch of the battlefield, taking note of the siting of the concert platform, the positioning of trees and bushes, and take soil samples to test the drainage properties of the ground.

They then spend the next few days monitoring the weather forecast closely. Come concert night they queue up early, and, when the gates open, in they flood, knowing exactly where to position themselves. If you've missed the latest weather forecast, they're worth watching. When rain is predicted they head straight for the trees on high ground. The music-lovers go down- wind of the speakers. In a strong westerly only muffled sounds of brass and percussion - like a distant seaside band - will reach those situated to the east of the speakers. If the forecast is good, then the seasoned punters will take up a variety of stations according to need. Those who love their Nimrod will have calculated the direction of the setting sun at the time the piece is played and will position themselves in readiness for a moving experience. Those who love their tipple will position themselves with easy access to the Portaloos, itself a moving experience.

I'm constantly amazed at the paraphernalia which is brought onto the site by the audience. Armed with many bundles and sundry furniture, they look like Pickford's men. At our most recent concert, a family carried in a stretcher draped in a white sheet under which was the lumpy shape of a body. I wondered whether it was granny's last wish to make her final journey to the strains of "Strike up the Band". I jumped out of my skin when the sheet was whipped away - only to reveal a particularly ample picnic. The size and quality of these picnics are a constant source of fascination, ranging from the pork pie and pop on a rug, to devilled crab, sauteed chicken breasts, strawberries and champagne groaning on a trestle table under a B&Q gazebo.

You may be surprised to learn that genuine music lovers actually attend these events - after all, a selection from Oklahoma! by a miked-up orchestra blasting out from huge speakers is not exactly for the connoisseur. But here is another British peculiarity. Just like a migrating bird, or Cinderella's pumpkin, a strange metamorphosis takes place come June. I don't know if it's to do with the phase of the Moon, or what, but people who have happily sat through Bach, Berlioz and Birtwistle in a comfy warm hall during the winter, will from this date hence forth only want to hear the 1812 Overture on a damp rug and be bitten by mosquitoes.

In the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, we're old hands at this game and come as well prepared as the punters. We bring emergency clothing, picnics, our families, friends and clothes pegs; we are determined to enjoy ourselves. A good pint makes the evening go with a swing. At one venue where there was no pub for miles, I was reduced to squeezing the contents of a couple of Calvados pancakes purchased from the on-site creperie into my mouth for my essential fix.

The clothes pegs are for the storm-battered music. It takes four hands to turn a page, two to turn the wildly flapping music over and two to fix the clothes pegs. I'm sure that one day we'll play a piece where all the orchestra members have to turn a page at the same time and there will be complete silence.

So far this season the weather has been mixed. With nine concerts still to go, anything could happen. Whatever the weather, there's never a dull moment. Inigo Jones and co might have had many grandiose ideas when planning these great parks, but I don't think that a symphony orchestra at the bottom of the garden was one of them.

The incongruity has thrown up some interesting scenarios. Our coaches have got jammed between the narrow park gates and the hedge opposite while trying to get out after the concert. We've had the usual ooohs from the audience at the first explosion of fireworks, but whether this was because of the spectacular display of rockets or the even more spectacular display of several hundred sheep stampeding towards the exit, wasn't clear. We must make sure not to play Sheep May Safely Graze next time they're put in with a flock of fireworks.