A New York Philharmonic parks concert might just be the ultimate NYC experience. You hear the city's hometown "band" : which also happens to be one of the world's great orchestras : while stretched out on a verdant carpet of grass. The jagged skyline glows, fireflies dart, stars shine. All around you the gorgeous mosaic of the city's richly diverse demographic listens to timeless classics. Everyone is welcome and, since the Concerts in the Parks, Presented by Didi and Oscar Schafer, with major support from Time Warner Inc., and the Ford Foundation, are free, you don't need money to attend : only, perhaps, a little patience in dealing with the crowds, but that's one of the virtues that New York teaches.
The tradition continues this summer. Music Director Alan Gilbert is leading the Philharmonic in free outdoor concerts in Brooklyn's Prospect Park, Cunningham Park in Queens, the Great Lawn in Manhattan's Central Park, and Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. On Staten Island, New York Philharmonic musicians offer a Free Indoor Concert at the College of Staten Island. And the lineup, from repertoire to guest artist Joshua Bell, looks great. Internationally acclaimed superstar violinist? Check. Only-in-New-York venues? Check. Beloved music from composer Bedˇrich Smetana? Czech. The Philharmonic also performs works with which it is closely associated: Richard Strauss's Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, and iconic works by Tchaikovsky, Nielsen, Bruch, Grieg, and Liszt.
The Philharmonic's parks concerts have been running since 1965, attracting some 14 million concertgoers. While the cumulative numbers are impressive, the reality is that parks concerts have individual meaning. For some, it's a nice night on the town. For others, it's a chance to hang with friends while enjoying the sounds. People hit Zabar's for food, lounge on blankets, and listen. Some gussy up their areas with fine china, silverware, and enough candelabras to make Liberace jealous. It all adds up to the kind of event that makes the city a more livable place.
"One of the most joyful times of the New York Philharmonic's year is when we join our fellow New Yorkers in the city's beautiful parks," says Alan Gilbert. "The shared spirit of community and love of music among the audience is palpable." Regular attendees have evolved their own rituals, from how they plan, and what they put in their picnic baskets, to the meaning of it all. We recently caught up with three stalwarts.
"I usually make my plans as early as June," explains David Finkelstein, a Brooklyn-based graphic designer and photographer. "That's the best way to make sure people can set the date aside. My husband and I live on Ocean Avenue, which is right across from Prospect Park. Usually, I'll meet my best friend and his partner, who also live in the building, and we'll all head out to the park together. There's really nothing quite like sitting in the park under a starry night sky and hearing the Orchestra play.
What do they bring? "We fill up a cart will all kinds of things : fresh fruit, wine, cold cuts, bread for sandwiches, chips, cookies, blankets to sit on, and even a citronella candle to keep the bugs away," answers Finkelstein. Part of his ritual includes documenting : and sharing : the evening, with a digital post-concert twist. "Sometimes I bring my camera and take photos of the Orchestra and of the fireworks following the concert. I like to practice with the camera : and then upload the photos to my Flickr page."
For Christine Weiss, an office manager in publishing, the Concerts in the Parks were an enjoyable part of her years living on Manhattan's Upper West Side, and continue to be even now that she lives in New Jersey. "The fun part was that, in addition to my friends, I would see neighbors, people who worked at stores in the area, the doorman at my building," she says. "There was a real cross-section of people. When I moved to New Jersey with my husband and kids a few years ago, I thought that would be it for the parks concerts, but I am working in the city again, so we make a point of sticking around for the concerts. My husband and I bring our kids, and it almost feels like we are passing on a tradition. We have to bring more food, more blankets, and, when the children were very little, something to keep them busy. But what's remarkable is that even small children pay attention to the music : they really listen. That surprised me, although maybe it shouldn't have. But it says something really nice about the quality of the experience."
Other regulars find something spiritual in these parks concerts. "Walking onto the Great Lawn and putting down my blanket and pillow, I put behind me all problems and worries," says Karla Layden, a freelance writer and editor. "The music, the Orchestra, take care of me in a way no one ever has. There is peace on earth for the duration. It doesn't matter if I'm there with someone or not. The music starts and I am in the thrall of our magnificent orchestra and the music of the heavens they play. I am content in a deep and impenetrable way that only accompanies live music. The time on the Lawn, listening, is deep and meaningful."
Robert Sandla is editor-in-chief of Symphony, the magazine of the League of American Orchestras.