Thursday, January 8, 2015

Warming Trend Forecast For Bijou This Weekend


It seems like wicked cold weather always attends the January Chamber Orchestra concerts at the Bijou. The edict has been issued from management: “Do Not Use The Stage Door To The Bijou For Any Reason!” Unlike the Tennessee Theatre, where the stage door is a floor down from the performing level, the stage door of the Bijou opens right on to the stage, letting in whatever bus exhaust, Harley-Davidson noise (even with the door closed you get that), and- COLD AIR.

To ensure good instrument and musician health, there are contractual guidelines assuring that the temperature onstage will be at a minimum of 65 degrees. Any colder than that, and players' fingers are at risk of injury. The woodwind and string instruments have a minimum temperature requirement for structural health, but I must add that it is the wide fluctuations in temperature that cause the most problems, not the cold temps themselves. A cello or a bassoon, for instance, can't help but cool off when being toted from a warm car (or bus, or train, etc.) to the hall. For a string player, this means opening the case and mingling the warmer indoor air with the cooled air inside the case, before pulling the instrument out in earnest. Different pieces of the instrument expand and contract with the heat at different rates, so there is a chance that they will come unglued. The friction fit of the pegs is affected by these different expansion rates also, which is why we often open our cases to find that one (or more) of our strings has come unwound. The glue which holds a stringed instrument together is purposely not super strong, in case there is some tectonic shifting due to temperature differential. Any glue that is stronger than the wood itself will cause the instrument to tear itself to shreds when exposed to a drastic temperature change. You want the glue to let go, not the wood itself. Humidifying devices, the most common of which is called the Dampit, are inserted into the f-holes to raise the humidity inside the instrument. The humidity plummets because of the dry forced-air heat that is so prevalent in our modern winter world.

A woodwind player's plight is different here, in that the player's warm breath blown into the instrument is at a way higher temperature than the ambient air, even on a summer's day. For this reason, woodwind instruments also need time to become acclimated to the cold. Another danger for wind instruments makes itself known at the end of a rehearsal or concert, when players leave through a door that allows cold air to enter. (A woodwind instrument takes quite a bit longer to put away; you can always count on the woodwind players to still be on stage at least 10 minutes after work). This cold air always seems to make a beeline for the woodwind instruments, which have become toasty warm from the indoor warm air and from being played. Principal clarinetist Gary Sperl can tell you some horror stories about cracks that his clarinets have sustained this way.

I have always been puzzled by the amazing condition of some string instruments that are 350+ years old. Most modern classical musicians, if not all, have every convenience and amenity to keep us warm in this weather, but what about 300 years ago? How on Earth did musicians in Europe and especially Russia cope with winter weather? Obviously Strads, Guarneris, etc. were owned by the upper class, who had ample means of keeping things warm, but what about the poor grunts that had decent but not world-class instruments?

It will probably get above freezing by Sunday at 2:30, when the Knoxville Symphony Chamber Orchestra will present music of Mozart, Stamitz and Strauss. It will definitely be above 65 inside the Bijou Theatre. So come warm up with us!

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