Orchestras Come Out to Play

Mighty 5 Tour Photo: Courtesy of Utah Symphony

Populism runs deep in American orchestras. In 1922 the New York Philharmonic began its outdoor concerts at Lewishon Stadium in the heart of Harlem. In 1935 the Chicago Parks Department, in partnership with the American Federation of Musicians, launched the Grant Park Symphony in the lake-front park known as "Chicago's front yard." Those concerts continue to this day, still free and 50 percent Parks District funded. While the Lewishon Stadium concerts ended in 1966, the New York Philharmonic has been performing free concerts in New York City's parks since 1965.

Two recent projects I was fortunate enough to see and hear recently extend the idea of engaging the many, to creating events that dramatically link orchestras to their unique time and place.

In the case of the Cincinnati Symphony's LumenoCity project, that orchestra is engaged in key elements of creative placemaking, playing, as the placemaking folks put it, "an explicit and central role" in shaping a neighborhood's "social, physical, and economic future."

The LumenoCity concerts are simply dazzling. The free outdoor performances in Washington Park, directly opposite the historic Victorian Music Hall, beam stunning visual elements across the park and onto the façade of Music Hall, while the orchestra plays an equally colorful program. The visuals overwhelm you with their sheer size, inventiveness, and whimsy. While you didn't have to be from Cincinnati to enjoy this, everything about the event was "of Cincinnati."

LumenoCity Photo: J. Miles Wolf

The orchestra, performing as both the CSO and the Cincinnati Pops, took the occasion to showcase its partners from the Cincinnati Ballet, Cincinnati Opera, and May Festival in works by Tchaikovsky, Bernstein, and more. The program featured a brilliant orchestration of the Weather Report hit "Birdland" by the CSO's own Tim Berens that was truly orchestral while preserving the sizzle of this jazz fusion hit. "I Feel Good" even found a place on this program as a nod to James Brown who recorded his first record, Please, Please, Please, in Cincinnati's King Studios. Many of the visuals served to highlight the rich detail of Music Hall's façade; others celebrated Cincinnati artist Charlie Harper. Local firm Brave Berlin worked with other area artists and a LumenoCity steering committee to create the designs.

LumenoCity has been a shot of adrenalin in the City's effort to revive the Over the Rhine neighborhood, home to Music Hall. The 40,000 free tickets for the three concerts were gone in twelve minutes. Just a few short years ago, people were afraid to enter Washington Park. Today, the park is a destination, revitalized in no small part by the Cincinnati Symphony's mounting of this spectacular community-wide event.

Decades before the twin imperatives of "access and excellence" became au courant in the broader arts sector, the Utah Symphony, led by its beloved Music Director Maurice Abravanel, was bringing great music to the deserts and canyons of Utah. Renowned for making the Utah Symphony the first American orchestra to record all the Mahler symphonies, Abravanel is equally celebrated for having singlehandedly grown demand for the orchestra in communities throughout the state and for having aligned the schedules of the orchestra and the school system so that musicians would be available to teach in Salt Lake City's public schools.

Building on this remarkable tradition, the Utah Symphony, under the inspired leadership of current Music Director Thierry Fischer, performed against the backdrop of Utah's five National Parks last month. Billed as the Mighty 5 Tour, the orchestra performed at Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef. The juxtaposition of a symphony orchestra in formal dress against the backdrop of Bryce Canyon's towering spires was startling.

But as Utah's Governor Gary Herbert and other elected officials accompanying the orchestra observed in remarks from the stage, both the Utah Symphony and the National Parks are equally embraced as state treasures. Audiences were a wonderful hodgepodge of bikers, hikers, tourists, ranchers, and townspeople. At the performance in Capitol Reef, over 1,200 people attended, even though the population of Teasdale, the nearest town, was 182. Full orchestra concerts were preceded by chamber performances in the parks' visitor centers, and an inventive education project linking bird songs and music was offered for children.

Mighty 5 Tour Photo: Courtesy of Utah Symphony

Each of these projects was organic and decidedly local, and created significant public value for broad segments of their communities. And each in its own way stretched our notions of what and where a concert can be. I was charmed by a conversation I was party to with members of the Utah Symphony brass section at intermission at the Zion National Park concert.

One of the musicians asked the others, where would you rather perform, in Utah's national parks, or at Carnegie Hall? They eventually got around to "both," but not before one commented that these Utah concerts had a unique pay-off because he could see and feel the impact on these particular audiences right in their home state.

Funders, arts administrators, and artists are bringing new energy and focus to exploring creative placemaking. Being of and for your community clearly matters, and orchestras are playing increasingly important roles in helping shape their communities' futures.