Top 10 Concerts in the Parks Moments

The New York Philharmonic's free outdoor summer series since 1965

By New York Philharmonic

1. The night Beethoven outdrew the Beatles

On August 10, 1965, the New York Philharmonic’s very first Concert in the Park, on the Sheep Meadow in Central Park, attracted an audience that was the talk of the town. A crowd of 70,000 was drawn to the green space in the heart of Manhattan to hear William Steinberg conduct Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

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

That’s more than Yankee Stadium could hold, and a good 15,000 more than the Beatles would draw five days later at Shea Stadium. The most eager concertgoers had claimed their spots before 5:00 in the morning!

Ad, "The night Beethoven outdrew the Beatles" by New York Journal-AmericanOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

2. A world record

The 1986 Concerts in the Parks coincided with Liberty Weekend, four days dedicated to the centennial and restoration of the Statue of Liberty. An estimated 800,000 New Yorkers flocked to the Great Lawn in Central Park for a star-studded program, conducted by then Music Director Zubin Mehta, with appearances by Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Marilyn Horne, and Placido Domingo.

Central Park, largest audience ever by NewsdayOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

The performance made the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest audience to attend a classical music concert.

Guinness World Record, largest audience at a classical music concert by Guinness World RecordsOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

3. Blankets galore

As the Concerts in the Parks became an annual tradition, concertgoers became more and more ambitious with their picnics and self-arranged seating. Something had to be done about the out-of-control blanket sprawl.

In 1990 printed programs included this notice.

Blanket regulationsOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

4. Backstage, outdoors

During the Concerts in the Parks, Philharmonic musicians can engage in the same backstage pursuits they enjoy during indoor concerts, like playing chess.

Oscar Weizner, Backstage in Central Park by Chris LeeOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Other backstage doings can be a little different: Leonard Bernstein usually didn’t get to goof off with Mayor Ed Koch before heading onstage at Philharmonic Hall.

Leonard Bernstein and Mayor Ed Koch, Backstage in Central Park by David RentasOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

5. Rain break

Even in summer, as Antonio Vivaldi famously depicted in The Four Seasons, storms can lurk just beyond the horizon. Sometimes inclement weather can change a program as the evening progresses, leaving symphonies unfinished or forcing quick decisions about what to cut. On July 18, 2006, a forecast for a thunderstorm could have spelled doom for the concert, but conductor Marin Alsop and the Philharmonic adapted by skipping both the intermission and the second movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, to be sure that the audience could catch the finale before a downpour.

Marin Alsop, Concerts in the Parks by Chris LeeOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

6. Best dressed

Audience members and staff alike have been known to use the occasion to have a picnic – and, sometimes, considerably more! Count the matching boaters in this photo from the 1970s.

Philharmonic staff picnic by Federico DiazOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

7. Bicentennial summer, 1976

After a 6-week, 31-concert Bicentennial Tour through Europe and the United States, the Philharmonic returned home to give New Yorkers the Bicentennial Parks Concert they deserved.

Copland: "Lincoln Portrait"
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On July 4, 1976, Laureate Conductor Leonard Bernstein led an all-American program that included his own Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris, and Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, with bass-baritone William Warfield as narrator.

Leonard Bernstein and William Warfield at the Bicentennial CelebrationOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

8. Candidate for most romantic moment

On July 7, 2003, James Ehnes closed out his performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto the way most concerti dare not end: with a question. Very much in the spirit of the Russian Romantic, Ehnes proposed to his girlfriend, Kate. She said yes!

James Ehnes and his Parks proposal by Chris LeeOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

9. Multitasking Philharmonic players

For some talented members of the Philharmonic, playing an instrument on its own just isn’t enough. Horn player John Carabella demonstrated an unconventional circular breathing technique at a 1988 Concerts in the Parks performance.

Smoking was banned from New York City parks in 2011, so reenactments of Carabella’s feat will have to be modified.

John Carabella, Concerts in the Parks by Chris LeeOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

10. Fireworks during the "1812 Overture"

Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture is legendary for its cannon-fire volley during the finale — an appropriate effect for a composition that commemorates Russia’s successful defense against Napoleon’s Grande Armée. On August 10, 1972, the New York Philharmonic performed the overture for the first time at a parks concert, replacing the cannon fire with a spectacular fireworks display.

It might not ward off an invading army, but what a way to spend an evening in the city!

Tchaikovsky: "1812 Overture"
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Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. Columbia Masterworks, 1963.

Concerts in the Park by Chris LeeOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

How did this all start? Find out in Priceless Music, Absolutely Free: How the Philharmonic launched a tradition of Concerts in the Parks

Concert in Prospect Park by Chris LeeOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Credits: Story

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

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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