“Hallelujah!” shouted a man after the first movement of J.S. Bach’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in E Major, played with simultaneous passion and heartbreaking sweetness by Lara St. John.
Hundreds of us felt the same as we listened, spellbound, to the first of this season’s free concerts at the Naumburg Bandshell, arguably the heart center of New York City’s Central Park. As dusk gave way to night, the violins soared and so did two ducks, taking in the concert from their bird’s eye view. The audience swayed, breathing in Linden tree perfume as sweet as 104 years of truly free music — the gift of a haberdasher turned banker named Elkan Naumburg who began financing the concerts in 1905, and, in 1923, created the present-day bandshell with its perfect, unamplified acoustics.
I arrived at the bandshell with my little dog, Maya, at about 7:20. The concert began at 7:30. There was no admission charge, no line to pass through. There was nobody who said, “You can’t bring a dog to this concert.” The bandshell is a place where all beings are free to assemble. I took a chair. Maya took another. People smiled at us. There were free programs and even free CDs for children at intermission. The musicians, too, were free. They played with relaxed arms, standing and swaying like one body in the cool breeze. Maya laid her head on the leg of the man beside her, and without looking at her, he submitted to her love.
As night fell, flutist Andrea Griminelli explained to the audience that Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor was very long, so it might be best if we held our applause until the last movement … and then he demonstrated our cue.
The final piece was sublime — The Knights orchestra along with virtuoso siblings Lara and Scott St. John playing Bach’s Concerto for 2 Violins, Strings and Continuo in D Minor — closing the first evening of the oldest continuous free outdoor concert series in the United States.
And to think that all this might have been destroyed. The story of the bandshell’s survival is the story of a seven-year David and Goliath battle. In 1993, Christopher London, the great-grandson of Elkan Naumburg, took on the Central Park Conservancy and the New York City Parks Department, foiling their attempts to demolish the bandshell. The agencies’ reasons for the destruction were many and ran from the bizarre (unamplified music was outmoded) to the more bizarre (an antipathy to freedom of assembly; no good could come from just anybody — even homeless people — sitting down to enjoy music).
Last night, hundreds of us not only sat down, but we did so amiably with only the trees and the cityscape against the moonlit heavens as housing. And after the concert, hundreds of us rose en masse, still savoring the music, and strolled home peacefully. This is freedom. Now why is that so scary?
The next concerts will take place Tuesdays, July 7, 21, and August 4. For more information, go to NaumburgConcerts.org.