Enjoying open-air music with your neighbors is as old as civilization itself. New York leaders doubtless had this in mind back in the 19th century when, as part of a broader quality-of-life agenda, they endowed their growing metropolis with masses of magnificent public parks. These were places where culture and nature could come together, where urbanites could experience the richest kind of "cultural citizenship." As such, the parks make a perfect setting for a New York cultural treasure that is, in fact, 15 years older than Central Park itself : the New York Philharmonic, which this July continues its tradition of playing free concerts throughout the boroughs of New York City. "I've always wanted the Orchestra to have a meaningful connection to the city," says Philharmonic Music Director Alan Gilbert, a native New Yorker. "I want it to be a source of civic pride, to be a resource for the city, to be an obvious expression of what is great about the city."
This year's return of the Philharmonic's Concerts in the Parks features five free outdoor concerts, presented in some of the city's loveliest locales. Gilbert conducts the free performances in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, on Wednesday, July 11, and on Central Park's Great Lawn on Friday, July 13, leading Respighi's Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rome, as well as Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4. Russian conductor Andrey Boreyko returns to the series on Thursday, July 12, in Cunningham Park, in Queens; Monday, July 16, in Central Park; and Tuesday, July 17, in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. Those concerts feature Wagner's Prelude to Act I of Die Meistersinger; Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, with soloist James Ehnes; and Brahms's Symphony No. 1. All performances begin at 8:00 p.m. and are followed by fireworks. In addition, the New York Philharmonic Brass will perform a Free Indoor Concert at the Center for the Arts, College of Staten Island, CUNY, on Sunday, July 15, at 3:00 p.m.
"I've spoken to a lot of people who have only heard the New York Philharmonic in the parks," says Gilbert, "though I am sure that a lot of people who go to our concerts in Avery Fisher Hall also go to the parks to hear us. We also hope that some of those who get to know the Orchestra first in the parks follow us back to Avery Fisher Hall. It's just perhaps a wider spectrum, which is fantastic."
"Cultural citizenship" is a good way of describing what unites parks audience members across this spectrum : and why forces from the private, corporate, and governmental spheres come together to present the Philharmonic's Concerts in the Parks. Among the most ardent are Didi and Oscar Schafer, whose gift of $5 million over five years was instrumental in allowing the Orchestra to continue to perform in the parks.
"To us, the concerts are a 'three-fer' : giving back to New York, the Parks, and, of course, the New York Philharmonic," say the Schafers, who always invite a few close friends to spread picnic blankets on the grass with them and enjoy the park concert ambiance alongside others doing the same. "The best part of our gift is seeing thousands of New Yorkers who are happy, enjoying an event that they look forward to every year as they listen to the best orchestra in the world."
The citizenship of corporations also plays a crucial part in presenting a series like this. Major corporate support for the 2012 New York Philharmonic Concerts in the Parks and the Free Indoor Concert has been provided by Time Warner Inc., whose headquarters are at Columbus Circle.
"At Time Warner, we believe in the power of the arts to bring communities together, and we know this is something New Yorkers especially appreciate," says Lisa Garcia Quiroz, Time Warner's chief diversity officer and senior vice president of corporate responsibility. "For this reason, we're committed to funding programs that make the arts more accessible : and that's why we're so honored to help bring the New York Philharmonic's free Concerts in the Parks to all five boroughs."
As Quiroz suggests, undoubtedly one of the nicest aspects of these concerts is what makes New York itself great : its people. "The audience is astonishingly diverse," says Adrian Benepe, commissioner for the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. "They come from all walks of life to enjoy the common bond that only beautiful, live, free music can provide." They are not alone: WQXR is so excited about the series that they will broadcast the concerts on July 13 and 17 (check listings for air date).
Yet the Philharmonic musicians themselves are among those who most enjoy the series. "The Parks Concerts can serve as a lure for people who might just go to picnic but find themselves liking classical music," says Irene Breslaw, the Philharmonic's Assistant Principal Viola. "Many times, the excitement of the public is palpable, and that makes it all worthwhile."
Violinist James Ehnes, who has performed in the parks before, agrees. "I love outdoor concerts in general," he says, "and there is indeed something special about playing for people who might not be that familiar with classical music. It's an honor to present a piece like the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto to them for the first time. I'll always remember the first time I heard it!" Of course, playing outdoors can have its drawbacks, since even nice weather can affect instruments. "Some instruments react pretty badly to changes in temperature or humidity, but my violin does okay," notes Ehnes.
It may strike you right away, when you arrive in the park for a Philharmonic concert and discover an expansive lawn filled with music lovers, or later, after you've been sitting there awhile, enjoying the performance and contemplating the vast and genial crowd. You're reminded of how much you love New York and feel what a pleasure it is to be among those who love it, too. When else do so many of us, from all parts of the spectrum, come together under such pleasant circumstances?
Stephen Greco is Content Director of Classical TV.