Priceless Music, Absolutely Free

How the Philharmonic launched a tradition of Concerts in the Parks

By New York Philharmonic

Ad, "Music Under the Stars" (1957) by Stadium Concerts, Inc.Original Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

The New York Philharmonic at the Stadium

Before the Concerts in the Parks began in 1965, Lewisohn Stadium was the summer home of the New York Philharmonic from 1922 to 1964. Located in northern Manhattan on the campus of City College, concerts at Lewisohn Stadium both provided low-cost tickets and additional performance opportunities for the Orchestra’s musicians, whose regular season at Carnegie Hall ran only from October through April. Stadium

Concerts were performed unofficially by Philharmonic musicians and known as the Stadium Symphony Orchestra.

The Stadium Symphony performs for a crowded audience in Lewisohn Stadium (1939-07-17) by Empire PhotographersOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in Lewisohn Stadium
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Dimitri Mitropoulos conducted from the piano at a Stadium Concert on August 9, 1949.

Stadium concerts were frequently broadcast over the radio. In fact, the first radio broadcast by a major symphony orchestra was by the New York Philharmonic at Lewisohn Stadium in 1922!

Press Clipping, "Again They Yell, We Want Minnie" (1957-06-23) by Harold C. SchonbergOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

“Hello, Minnie!”

Minnie Schafer Guggenheimer (1882–1966) was the driving force behind the Lewisohn Stadium Concerts. In addition to offering first-rate music and artists, the performances were made popular by her out-sized personality.

Minnie's tireless fundraising efforts helped ensure that tickets remained inexpensive, making it possible for tens of thousands to attend every summer.

Concerts in the ParksNew York Philharmonic

The New York Philharmonic's time at Lewisohn Stadium came to a close in 1964, but that wouldn't be the end of outdoor Philharmonic concerts.

Lincoln Center Plaza, artist rendering (1950s) by Hugh FerrissOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Creating a summer season

When the New York Philharmonic moved to its new home at Lincoln Center in 1962, discussions had already begun about how to provide a year-round, 52-week contract for Orchestra musicians — a move that would provide stability and continuity in the lives of the players. The new Philharmonic Hall (now David Geffen Hall), with its modern air-conditioning system, allowed the Orchestra to program summer concerts and festivals indoors.

Concerts in the Parks (1966-07-26) by The New York TimesOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

The goal of providing outdoor and low-cost or even free concerts — as had been offered at Lewisohn Stadium since 1922 — was an idea that Carlos Moseley, the Philharmonic’s Managing Director, would not give up.

Nick Webster remembers Carlos Moseley and the first season of Concerts in the ParksNew York Philharmonic

Concerts in the Parks poster (late 1960s) by Ken WittenbergOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Minnie Guggenheimer’s many successes helped inspire the Philharmonic’s Concerts in the Parks.

In her honor, the first Concerts in the Parks stage was named “The Minnie.”

The "Minnie Guggenheimer," trailerized concert shell (August 1965) by George E. JosephOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

This portable stage, with a combined weight of 36 tons, could be folded up and moved to different locations on four trailers.

It took workers 16 hours to set up the stage in 1965!

Concert in the Park, Didi and Oscar Schafer (2018-06-13) by Chris LeeOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Family tradition

The Philharmonic Concerts in the Parks have been presented by Didi and Oscar Schafer since 2007.

Oscar, Philharmonic Chairman Emeritus, is carrying on the family tradition started by Minnie Guggenheimer — his great-aunt.

The Philharmonic's first Concert in the Park (1965-08-10) by New York World-TelegramOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Priceless music, absolutely free

On August 11, 1965, The New York Times reported 70,000 people had attended the first-ever free parks concert the night before in Central Park. By the end of August, almost half a million people had heard the New York Philharmonic in all five boroughs of New York City, performing repertoire ranging from Copland to Wagner.

Concert in the Park, conducted by Music Director Jaap van Zweden (2019-06-12) by Chris LeeOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Since then, more than 14 million New Yorkers and visitors to the city have enjoyed what an old slogan called “Priceless Music, Absolutely Free,” with the Concerts in the Parks bringing the virtuosity of the Philharmonic performing great music to locations across the city — and always free of charge.

Credits: Story

Created by the New York Philharmonic Archives
Sarah Palermo, Assistant Archivist. Gabryel Smith, Director, Archives & Exhibitions; Bill Levay, Digital Archivist.

Video and audio editing: Mark Travis, Associate Director, Media Production

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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