The event taking place on that summer night in 1965 was momentous : so momentous that it ignited the headlines of the New York dailies: "70,000, Yes 70,000, Hear Philharmonic in the Park," trumpeted The New York Times. "Philharmonic's Largest Audience," crowed the New York Herald Tribune. "The Moon, The Music and You," proclaimed the Daily News. "Encore! Encore!" headlined an editorial in the New York World-Telegram.
The word was out: the New York Phil- harmonic had launched its free Concerts in the Parks. The city was wowed.
On that August 10, 1965, those 70,000 concertgoers streamed into Central Park toting babies, blankets, dogs, and picnic baskets to hear their hometown orchestra perform a program built around Beethoven's mighty Ninth Symphony. They settled on the 15 acres of The Sheep Meadow and became, at that time, the largest live Philhar- monic audience. In fact, according to Time magazine, it was the largest audience for a musical event in New York's history.
"Those who were on hand will not easily forget the occasion," wrote Times critic Harold C. Schonberg. "Any large audience is ipso facto impressive, and the make-up and behavior of this audience was some- thing special. There were no troublemakers, no exhibitionists, no noisemakers or van- dals. They came determined to hear the music as best they could, and the only noises outside of Beethoven were the normal noises of the city."
Fifty years later, from June 17 to 24, 2015, the New York Philharmonic Concerts in the Parks, to be presented for the ninth consecutive year by Didi and Oscar Scha- fer, will celebrate the series's Golden Anniversary with six free concerts through- out the boroughs of New York City, five of them conducted by Music Director Alan Gilbert and Charles Dutoit. The soloists will include violinists Joshua Bell and Re- naud Capu‹on, soprano Julia Bullock, and tenor Ben Bliss. (See page 21 for schedule and repertoire.)
"I grew up with the parks concerts and have sensed from both sides : the audi- ence and the stage : how powerful a force they are in New York City's life," says Gilbert, whose parents both were violinists in the Orchestra. "I love the parks concerts."
He is not alone. Since their inception, the al fresco concerts have been attended by more than 14 million people.
The project was the dream of the late Carlos Moseley, the Orchestra's then Managing Director, who famously walked through The Sheep Meadow every day on his way to work, eyeing the territory as a potential concert venue. "The New York Philharmonic had signed a 52-week con- tract, and the Lewisohn Stadium Concerts were disappearing," remembers Nick Webster, who was then Moseley's right-hand man. "Carlos had gone to Mayor [Robert F.] Wagner and proposed: 'We'll do the con- certs in Central Park, free for the city, and we will provide the orchestra, the conductor, the soloists, if the city will provide us with a shell or platform.' "
"It was a brand-new venture," continues Webster. "No one had done this kind of thing with outdoor concerts" : ones that involved a stage, a shell, and trailers to travel (quickly) to different venues. A tradition was launched.
The Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company, the first corporate sponsor of the parks concerts, began that first summer with a contribution of $57,500, and continued its support for 10 years. In 1965 the City of New York spent $100,000 for the stage and other equipment and $90,000 more for operat- ing costs; Schlitz and the Philharmonic provided almost $120,000 for the remaining expenses. The trailer-ized orchestral shell was nicknamed the "Minnie," in honor of Mrs. Charles ("Minnie") Schafer Guggenheimer of the Philharmonic's Board of Directors and Auxiliary Board, who had been a leader in presenting outdoor music in the city at the Lewisohn Stadium Concerts. (She also happens to be the great-aunt of today's presenter : and Philharmonic Board Chairman : Oscar S. Schafer.)
The opening concert in Central Park : which the police department had projected would lure a crowd of 5,000 : featured the World Premiere of William Schuman's Philharmonic Fanfare : a New York Philharmonic commission composed for the event : along with Wagner's Die Meister- singer Overture and Beethoven's Ninth, con- ducted by William Steinberg. The ensuing 11 concerts took the Philharmonic to Prospect Park, Brooklyn; Crocheron Park, Queens (where an encroaching storm prompted the Orchestra to play the movements of Beetho- ven's Ninth in reverse order); New York Botanical Garden, Bronx; and Clove Lake Park, Staten Island. The second round of performances featured clarinetist Benny Goodman playing Mozart's Clarinet Concerto.
"It was the first time I had ever heard music outdoors, and that these outdoor concerts were free was incredible," recalls former Brooklynite Rick Rand. "Everyone knew and loved Benny Goodman. To this day, every time I hear the Mozart Clarinet Concerto that first time comes to mind."
Over the last 50 years more than 50 American and international conductors, as well as more than 50 renowned soloists, have been drawn to the Orchestra's sum- mer stage: in addition to Benny Goodman, Aaron Copland performed his own Piano Concerto, Marian Anderson narrated Copland's Lincoln Portrait, and Music Director Leonard Bernstein was the conductor and soloist for Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25 and Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. (When Bernstein conducted in Central Park in 1966, one official estimated the crowd at close to 90,000).
"The New York Philharmonic Concerts in the Parks have demonstrated what a valuable resource an orchestra can be for its community on a grand scale, for half a century," says New York Philharmonic President Matthew VanBesien.
Indeed, the thrill of the concerts has continued to reverberate. "It's a major highlight of the summer," says artist manager Laura Beatrix Newmark, who has been at- tending the Central Park concerts for the last 15 years. "It reminds me of the New York City Marathon : it brings people from all over the world. It's cool to hear all the accents and to see the ages of people : newborns and people in their 80s."
New York Philharmonic horn player Leelanee Sterrett, a Michigan native, played her first Parks Concert in June 2012. "I had no idea so many people would be there!" she says. "It felt like such a major event in the city."
Former Philharmonic bassoon and contrabassoon Bert Bial, who played with the Orchestra from 1957 to 1995, happily recalls his many summers in the parks: "They gave me a lot of pleasure : just hav- ing that contact with the audiences. How would you feel having 80,000 people ap- plauding you? It feels good!"
Lucy kraus is a freelance writer and editor, and the former senior Publications editor at the New York Philharmonic.