At their best, outdoor summer concerts are fun for everybody. At their worst, the conditions in which the musicians have to operate, combined with long journeys and difficult programmes often catastrophically under-rehearsed, all for payment that is little more than an insult, can mean that disgruntlement is the best they can hope for.
A rank-and-file musician is usually paid £80 for such a day, including the performance, a three-hour rehearsal and the time it takes to travel to the often out-of-the-way venues. These concerts are known in the profession as "muddy-field gigs". The biggest hazard - which will come as no surprise - is the British "summer" weather. We have all shivered our way through such concerts under umbrellas.
"You spend a lot of time leaping around after the sheets of your music as they blow away," Jane, a harpist, says. "One time it rained so hard that a lake formed in front of the stage, and outside buses were turning over in the mud."
Michael, a violinist, tells stories of driving rain across the platform during Rossini's William Tell Overture - "Never had the storm music seemed so appropriate!" - and doing gigs "wearing long johns and jeans under my concert suit".
Jane faces all kinds of extra problems in transporting her instrument: harps are large, expensive and heavy. "I always try to drive the harp up to the stage's back entrance, and once I drove over the central power cable and all the electricity went off! I often have to be towed back to the road afterwards because otherwise I get stuck in the mud with the car wheels going round and round. And if you're on a beach you have to watch out for the tides." Things can get worse still. "A few weeks ago," Jane adds, "a bird shat on my harp. Right into the mechanism. It's almost impossible to clean it out."
One violinist recalls a Last Night of the Proms programme during which his valuable Italian instrument was damaged by some flying Smarties from the audience. Another musician has just experienced an outdoor concert in the north of England at which an excessively jingoistic presenter, clad in a Union Jack outfit and hat, found it amusing "not only to make quips slagging off 'Frogs' but also to pick out members of the orchestra to humiliate. He was saying to the audience things like, 'This is Mary; she got her roots done just in time for this evening,' or, 'This is Lizzie; she's pregnant - ooh, we know what you've been doing.'
"Nobody ever asks if a presenter peddling racist attitudes and personal insults is OK with us, and there's absolutely nothing we can do about it."
So much for the compères. A big-name singer can earn thousands of pounds while the orchestra plays for peanuts. That's fine, says Jane - as long as the soloists really can sing. "I did a concert with one famous singer who actually couldn't sing," she recalls. "He'd had to have some of the music transposed down because he couldn't reach the high notes. We started off laughing, but by the end he was so bad, and being paid so much, that it stopped being funny. He was kind to us, but at one point in the rehearsal he said, 'Sorry, I've got some technical problems', and the first horn called out, 'We all know that, mate!'"
All the players I speak too are keen to stress that muddy-field gigs can be useful and, on a good day, enjoyable. They are an excellent way for young musicians to jump in at the deep end, learn the repertoire and perform on minimal rehearsal.
"You never know which the good gigs are going to be," says Michael. "The ones that sound the most glamorous are frequently the worst, while ones that you might think will be dubious can be wonderful experiences. One of my best was a free local-authority gig near Huntingdon with a little chamber orchestra. It was cold, but we had the most fabulous show. That was because the conductor, John Wilson, was terrific. He insisted on us using loads of vibrato to get a big, fat, Hollywood tone - it sounded fantastic; it was great music-making, and the audience loved it."
Sometimes, though, it's all just too much to take. "Once we were in a big park at the end of the season when the weather was chilly," Michael continues, "and it was a bad date all the way through. There was a generator the size of a lorry churning out diesel fumes right next to the stage. We had a huge programme, almost three hours of music, including [Wagner's] "The Ride of the Valkyries", which sounded ludicrous on a tiny orchestra with virtually no rehearsal. I was sitting on the inside third desk [row] of the first violins, and the lighting strip stopped just in front of us, so my desk partner and I couldn't read our music and we got colder and colder - lighting helps to keep you warm.
"As the evening went on, my desk partner became more and more furious. And at the end, in the 1812 Overture [by Tchaikovsky], the fireworks were right next to us, and when one huge one went off beside us, he just lost it. In front of 6,000 people. He stood up in the middle of the piece, got his fiddle case out from under his chair, wiped down his violin and bow meticulously with a cloth, put them away, jumped off the stage and went home! Afterwards he thought he'd be sacked. But he'd had such a terrible evening and been so angry about it that the management didn't dare go near him."
These musicians fear that audiences will come to such concerts and assume that "that's what classical music is". As Jane says: "Some outdoor concerts are good. But usually you turn up, you freeze, you have only a top-and-tail rehearsal, there will be a bad soloist who's married to the director, and it's amplified so you don't know what it really sounds like.
"These concerts are part of our job. They're good experience, people enjoy them, and we shouldn't be too precious about them. But surely not at the price of people thinking that that's all there is to classical music."Reuse content