The Sarasota Orchestra's Outdoor Pops concert is back after a two-year hiatus, and Iconic Songs of the 1970s are on the itinerary.
They’ve traded in their tux and tails for something more comfortable.
The Sarasota Orchestra is braving the elements this week for its annual Outdoor Pops performances at Ed Smith Stadium, a tradition briefly curtailed over the last two years by the COVID-19 pandemic.
That simple change of venue — a ballpark instead of a climate-controlled concert hall — introduces a host of challenges in terms of translating their normal performance, but if you ask conductor Christopher Confessore, it’s fun for everybody involved.
“I’ve been outdoors sweating to the oldies for many, many years,” says Confessore, the music director and principal conductor of the Brevard Symphony Orchestra. "I know to be well hydrated.”
Confessore, interestingly, says he has been to Ed Smith Stadium as a baseball fan but never in his professional capacity.
But he says he led the orchestra in outdoor performances at the Phillippi Estate, and he does an annual Fourth of July performance with the Brevard orchestra. Confessore also does outdoor performances with the Alabama Symphony Orchestra, and over the years, he’s learned how to iron out any wrinkles he might face.
You may worry about the wind and rain, but Confessore has even found a way to deal with insects atop the podium.
“We have lights on our music stands. Sometimes those lights draw bugs,” he says. “Sometimes after our Fourth of July concert in Cocoa, either that night or the next morning, I’ll have to go through my music and shake out all the dead bugs and everything that’s in there. Since I haven’t conducted at this venue, I don’t know what the deal is. But we’re ready for all of that.”
The performances may start on Friday evening, but the orchestra’s operations staff begins putting everything together on Wednesday.
Lorenzo Mills, production manager for the orchestra, says that the initial stages of preparation involve bringing the generators and the stage onto the field. The first pieces of equipment arrive in a massive truck, and the staff lays down plywood to protect the ballpark grass. That takes a couple hours; once the generators are installed, the next step is to unfold the stage.
A separate crew handles the lighting trusses that go up on stage, and the staff has to run giant cables away from the stage and into the generators. The actual audio equipment won’t come in until the following day, says Mills, and the process has to repeat itself.
“The part that people forget is that at the end of each concert — and as a matter of fact, at the end of our first rehearsal, which is on Thursday night — all of the equipment we put up for this orchestra actually gets torn down completely,” he says.
“We reset it the next day. It doesn’t stay out overnight due to the possibility of rain. The security at the ballpark is very good, but you never know who could find their way out there accidentally or on purpose.”
Mills says they begin shortly after the show is over. The instruments get taken away, some through the dugout and into the clubhouse, and the stage and chairs and music stands get covered with plastic. The audio company pulls all its microphones.
And then the next day, they’re back setting everything up in the afternoon.
“I think for most people, it’s magic,” says Mills. “They walk in and think, ‘Wow, this is amazing. I wonder how they do this.’
"And then that’s the last time they think about it.”
How does the process contrast to the average show? Mills says that when they set things up at a venue like the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, they don’t have to worry about teardown each night.
The venue is locked, and the stage is protected from the threat of rain. But at Ed Smith Stadium, they have to prepare for any eventuality, and that means getting in there and doing the hard work of disassembling the instruments each night.
“We’ll do that Thursday night, we’ll do that Friday night and then weather permitting, we’ll do that again Saturday night,” says Mills. “Saturday night, we get to take it back to our building and put it away for the season. That last concert, I’d say we’re there until somewhere between 1 and 2 am. That’s when the truck is officially pulling off the field. That’s the last of it.
"Everything has to leave and we have to leave it like we got it with as little damage to the grass as possible.”
Of course, this explanation may have inspired even more questions.
Which instruments have to be set up and disassembled each time? Is the crew moving a piano five times over the course of the two performances? No, says Mills, at this point a piano isn’t part of the performance. And it’s for the exact reason you might expect.
The Orchestra can get that piano up onto the raised platform, but it would be prohibitively difficult to bring it in each evening.
And since there’s no piano, Mills says the hardest thing to move is probably the timpani.
“I would say it’s another couple hours for us to take all those instruments into the visitor’s clubhouse,” says Mills of the nightly teardown process. “We go down the steps to the dugout, up the steps to the visitor’s locker room and put all our percussion instruments and the keyboards there. Anything that could possibly get damaged or wet. Our timpani are too big to fit there; we take them and we put them in the first aid room behind home plate. The Orioles have really made it easy for us to move some of that stuff around and find places for it. The timpani are quite large; the stairs are tricky to navigate. They’re slippery and they’re made of concrete.”
What if it rains? Mills says the performances have a Sunday makeup date just in case a concert is washed away. He says much of the setup can be done in the rain, but he noted that the crew cannot do anything if there is lightning within an 11-mile radius.
What about the performers? How will the performance be different for them?
Confessore says that one of the main hazards for the musicians is being able to hear each other over the din.
At one outdoor venue, he says, he had to pause a concert so the audience didn’t miss a harp solo due to a passing ambulance. But he doesn’t expect that kind of hazard at Ed Smith Stadium; the most pressing issues will be presented by the weather.
“There are wind clips that musicians have on their music stands to help keep the music from blowing away,” he says. “It used to be, 30 years ago, we were just using clothespins. Now they have these elaborate long strips of two-inch wide plexiglass like a ruler that has a clip at the top. And they’ll put a couple of those on there so they can see through the plexiglass to see the music. At the conductor stand, I’m turning my pages so much more frequently than the violin players. I usually have like a box that I put on top of the music stand, and the scores go inside the box. That gives me a wall around all four sides of the music and it keeps it from blowing.”
The material on the bill, says Confessore, is sure to appeal to a wide range of demographics. The program is based on pop hits from the ’70s from a wide range of artists including James Taylor, Paul Simon, Carole King and Joni Mitchell, among others.
But more importantly, says Confessore, it’s been arranged for an orchestra by Don Bryn.
Confessore says that Nashville-based guest vocalists Swearingen & Kelli are perfect for the material and Bryn’s arrangement should leave room for the orchestra to perform at peak capabilities.
“It’s a challenge when we do concerts that feature pop artists in front of the orchestra,” he says. “Sometimes you get a full band. Drum set. Lead guitar. Rhythm guitar. Keyboards. The orchestra can get lost in the shuffle.
"This performance is just the singers, and I think one or both of them will be playing acoustic guitar. Otherwise, the backup band and support instrumentals are exclusively from the orchestra. It’s going to be a unique collaboration that gives a really full sound that will show off the orchestra and enhance the presentation of these great songs.”
Confessore says many members of the orchestra will consider themselves fans of the music being played, and he says his 15-year-old daughter loves the material too.
It’s different than the orchestra’s normal Beethoven and Mozart fare, he says, but it’s timeless in its own right. Then there’s the matter of the crowd. The orchestra may see an audience twice as large as the ones they see on a normal night at an indoor venue; that’s part of the allure for the musicians too, says Confessore, who will be drawn to fireworks just as much as the audience.
“It’s fun,” he says of working outdoors. “For any performance, the connection with your audience is one of the greatest things about the experience. And the larger and more enthusiastic the audience you have, as a performer, you can’t help but raise your level of performance. That’s true for any type of concert the orchestra gives, and I think it’s true for pop artists too.
"There’s just an energy that feeds back and forth between a performer and an audience member.”
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