The New York Philharmonic Orchestra’s free Concerts in the Parks, a sometime summer feature of city life, has returned for its 47th season to appreciative applause and literal éclat. The first concert in the series, on Wednesday, July 11, was held at Prospect Park and reprised that Friday at Central Park’s Great Lawn. A second program was performed at Cunningham Park in Queens, the Great Lawn again, and Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx; a third, indoor program was held at Staten Island’s CUNY Center for the Arts.
While Philharmonic concerts are themselves a pleasure, it’s the collective New York experience they publicly provide that makes them mandatory, even when it rains, as it did in Central Park on the night of the 13th. Our experience started well before arriving: Exiting the bus at 86th and Fifth, we joined the processional parade of fellow attendees passing the Metropolitan Museum’s Egyptian Wing. New Yorkers, it would seem, are fairly orderly these days, and New York City parks employees highly organized. A man offered trash bags in front of categorized trash receptacles; programs were distributed nearby.
A canvass of veterans produced the intelligence that one needed to arrive only four hours before the concert to get coveted spots on the nearest free grass 25 yards from the stage, behind and below the half-empty folding-chair “premium seating,” whereas in years past it was necessary to arrive by 2 p.m. However, because many eschew the softball field’s finely crumbled clay, excellent just-off-center plots thereon were to be had quite late. Concert real estate, of course, consisted of a few bedspread square feet; once one’s turf was claimed, it was time for the pre-concert picnic. Given the program’s thematic fare—Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, Respighi’s dreamy Fountains of Rome, and Roman Trilogy companion Pines of Rome—Prosecco was the chosen beverage; the repast of this respondent and his epicurean companion consisted of greenmarket goat cheese on rye, Castelvetrano olives, chilled sea robin, bulgur tabouleh, and egg salad; and for dessert, wedges of Russian “vafelniy” honey cake topped with homemade whipped cream and blueberries.
It was also naturally desirable to sit next to Italian New Yorkers—although the concert brought out New York’s full demographic gamut, old-to-young, quintessentially diverse. One was from the Italian Cultural Institute, which is, along with the American Academy in Rome, a New York Italian cultural treasure: another NYU via Florence. We conversed about Venice and Central Park’s Conservatory Garden’s wisteria pergola-resplendent Italian Garden at 104th Street.
The concert itself was lovely, though the music itself was uneven. Led by conductor Alan Gilbert, the Philharmonic played a brass- and wind-heavy program. Tchaikovsky was an incoherent ramble dedicated to his enigmatic, truncate patroness Nadezhda von Meck. After intermission, at which point it started lightly raining, the concert concluded with Respighi. The audience took the rain in stride, this respondent with a shared umbrella and many others improvising, including those with oversized, impressive conic newsprint hats. Obligingly, the rain stopped before the concert ended.
No matter the weather, the Philharmonic performed like a human music box—its conductor expressive, its musicians flawless, and the interpretations sweeping. Still, the venue had its limits. The Great Lawn isn’t Boston’s egalitarian Hatch Shell, and most of the audience couldn’t really see the orchestra. The placement of the names of the would-be latter-day corporate and individual Medicis directly above the stage was vulgar, the former trolling for customers, the latter genuflecting to a hedge fund Master of the Universe whose customers lost 34 percent on their investments in 2008. Call me an ingrate: It’s an insult to have to countenance such smarmy schlock during a classical music concert.
The performance was immediately followed by fireworks sited behind the audience, a slightly overlong, considerately muted display. If one had turned around during the concert, there was a fine night-skyline view downtown. This formed a tinsel-silhouetted backdrop for the fireworks, which included shaped displays—peonies, bombettes, bouquets, a heart, and other pyrotechnic mainstays. Exiting the park was orderly, if plodding; we finally broke free at Park Avenue and walked to Second to catch the M15.
Concerts in the Parks is a reminder of why we live in New York, and just how urbane New York has—for the most part—become for those with time and taste and even modest means. We can congratulate ourselves on our mostly mutual civility (inebriated tramplers notwithstanding), although at the climax of the Pines, which I find pompous anyway, I was briefly insulted and lightly slapped by a roving mad person. Distraction timely; New York night out now complete.