The New York Philharmonic is as deeply embedded in the life of New York as any cultural institution in the city. It was founded in 1842 by a group of local musicians, and nobody has been around longer: not the Bronx Zoo (1899), not The Metropolitan Opera (1883), not even Central Park (1859). The Orchestra's achievements in musical history are the stuff of legend, from the impressive list of world premieres and the Hall of Fame roll-call of music directors, to the national and international tours that culminated most recently in its groundbreaking visit to North Korea.
Yet the breadth and depth of what the Philharmonic gives to its home town has not been as much in the spotlight. The Orchestra contributes immeasurably to the pulsing life of the metropolis; it is one of our jewels, one of the gems that make New York what is often called the greatest city in the world. "New York is really the cultural capital of the world," President and Executive Director Zarin Mehta points out. "Every major orchestra makes a minimum of one, if not multiple performances here. The fact that we have survived here is not to be taken for granted. I think we thrive on the variety of peoples and the competition."
There are so many ways in which the Orchestra is woven into the fabric of the city.
One can start with the most obvious: those magnificent, free Concerts in the Parks, now presented by Didi and Oscar Schafer, where the Philharmonic performs free in every borough for immense crowds each summer. Begun in 1965 on the Sheep Meadow in Central Park, the performances started in the days when New York was a summer festival; survived the grim period when the city seemed to be hanging on by its fingernails; and flourishes now, with Central Park as lush and bountiful as ever. This year, a new twist: in a tiny touch of "green," the Philhar-monic's commemorative T-shirts will be made of organic cotton and water-based dyes. Also, an anniversary: among the Philharmonic's listeners, since the late 1970s, have been participants from Hospital Audiences, Inc., which this summer is celebrating its 40th year of bringing wheelchair-bound and ambulatory patients by special bus to join the throng.
Long before that, from 1922 up into the 1960s the Philharmonic spent its summers in Lewisohn Stadium, the colonnaded uptown amphitheater where‹for as little as a quarter‹anyone could ascend to the stone benches and hear music for which the folks in Carnegie Hall paid a lot more. In fact, the current Music Director, Lorin Maazel, made his own Philhar-monic debut during one of those performances, on August 5, 1942, when he was all of 12 years old.
The matter of youth brings to mind the Young People's Concerts, the longest-running family concert series in the world, and a Philharmonic specialty since 1924. That was when conductor "Uncle Ernie" Schelling began guiding thousands of elementary-school students through the repertoire, urging them to imagine what composers were trying to communicate. The country at large experienced them starting in 1958, when Leonard Bernstein, in his first performance as Music Director, began leading them on television. The programs continue to this day, with conductor-host Delta David Gier and scriptwriter-director Tom Dulack presenting Saturday afternoon performances crafted specifically for the young listener.
The Orchestra's reach to the next generation also includes the School Partner-ship Program (SPP), designed for children in third through fifth grades who otherwise might never hear the glorious sound of 100 instruments singing as one. In this program, Philharmonic-trained Teaching Artists work with specially designed music curricula in a dozen schools scattered throughout the boroughs. By the end of those programs, Philharmonic Director of Education Theodore Wiprud says, the SPP kids are among the best prepared audiences the Orchestra performs for all year. And there are the School Day Concerts, too, for which the Orchestra now devotes a week geared to schoolchildren in grades three through twelve from around the city.
Beyond these carefully planned events, the New York Philharmonic has responded to situations far outside its normal parameters. After the devastating assault of September 11, 2001, the Orchestra offered the solace that only music can provide. It canceled its Opening Night Gala and changed the program, performing Brahms's Ein deutsches Requiem not only for those inside Avery Fisher Hall but, free, to those assembled outside, on Lincoln Center's plaza, to watch the concert projected on a screen. In the following months, Philharmonic musicians traveled to public spaces near Ground Zero to perform chamber music. "We were feeling terribly helpless," said Associate Principal Oboe Sherry Sylar, one of the many musicians who participated in those concerts. "What we could give was the music."
The balm of the Philharmonic is not offered just to nearby neighbors. After Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in October 2005, the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) was among the homeless. In the weary aftermath, the New Yorkers invited the Bayou State's musicians to Avery Fisher Hall to play alongside them in a special concert that would benefit the LPO musicians. "To play next to professional musicians in New York on that stage," recalled LPO managing director Babs Mollere, "was electric."
That special electricity from the New York Philharmonic charges the grids of the city the year round.
Peter W. Goodman, an assistant professor of journalism at Hofstra University, is the author of Morton Gould: American Salute.