The Philharmonic's first Concert in the Park (1965-08-10) by New York World-TelegramOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives
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.
Ad, "The night Beethoven outdrew the Beatles" (1965-08-23) by New York Journal-AmericanOriginal 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!
Central Park, largest audience ever (1986-07-05) by NewsdayOriginal 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.
Guinness World Record, largest audience at a classical music concert (1987) by Guinness World RecordsOriginal 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.
Blanket regulations (August 1988)Original 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.
Oscar Weizner, Backstage in Central Park by Chris LeeOriginal 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.
Leonard Bernstein and Mayor Ed Koch, Backstage in Central Park (1980s) by David RentasOriginal 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.
Marin Alsop, Concerts in the Parks (2006-07-18) by Chris LeeOriginal 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.
Philharmonic staff picnic (circa 1976) by Federico DiazOriginal 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.
Leonard Bernstein and William Warfield at the Bicentennial Celebration (1976-07-04)Original 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.
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.
James Ehnes and his Parks proposal (2003-07-07) by Chris LeeOriginal 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!
John Carabella, Concerts in the Parks (August 1988) 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.
Concerts in the Park (2014-07-11) 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!
Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. Columbia Masterworks, 1963.
Concert in Prospect Park (2019-06-14) 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
Created by the New York Philharmonic Archives
Sarah Palermo, Assistant Archivist; Jasper Schoff, Archives Intern. Gabryel Smith, Director, Archives & Exhibitions; Bill Levay, Digital Archivist.