Sweating Through Flats And Sharps

July 22, 2011

by Monica Davey, New York Times

CHICAGO — When the enormous stage doors roll open for the Grant Park Orchestra’s performance, a rush of hot air surges in among the musicians. The humid heat tends to send the instruments out of tune — and in unhappily assorted directions (the metal instruments’ notes may go sharp even as the woodwinds’ go flat). And there have been moments when Mary Stolper’s flute suddenly seemed to wish, in all the sweat, to “slide right off” her face.

As the temperatures soared this week and as Jeremy Moeller, the assistant principal trombone, found himself changing his drenched shirt three times during a single rehearsal, there was more than personal comfort at stake. “Ask anybody to do whatever they do and have more than half of how they do their job completely turned around,” said Ms. Stolper, the orchestra’s principal flute. “And that is what this heat is like for us.”

And yet, there is a certain stoic pride to all of this. It would not be the orchestra it is — playing, for decades, before thousands in this city’s front yard — without the memories of performances in pounding rains, peculiar fogs, tornado scares, sudden swarms of bugs (so thick one could not take a breath to play the next note without ingesting a few) and, yes, brutal, crushing heat.

Extra precautions were taken for Wednesday’s show: the order of pieces was switched around, an intermission was added, some musicians’ most precious instruments were left at home to prevent damage, and a dress code was relaxed to allow even shorts and tank tops of appropriate color. Sweat could still be seen dripping from some musicians, as Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 in C major echoed into the far blankets in the grass, but performing inside, somewhere cooler and more predictable, was apparently not even given a thought.

“That’s not Grant Park,” said Michael Geller, the principal bass, who has played here since 1970. “It’s not what we do."