Thursday, August 20, 2009

Music in Central Park

The city is full of surprises. You’re on the subway, and the local is going express. More often it’s the other way round, but if you’re trying to catch a connection out of town, even that may lead to complications.

You’ve walked fifteen blocks with a heavy backpack to spend some time at your favorite spot in Central Park. When you get there, it has been closed off for renovation. It is the city’s way of keeping you flexible and creative, but those kinds of surprises can be a little annoying occasionally.

There are other kinds of surprises that can turn an ordinary day into a feast.

One perfect afternoon, I was walking across Central Park, heading for the subway on my way to teaching. Passing by the great lawn, I noticed that it was divided into sections by orange ribbons. Loudspeakers and a huge stage had been installed, suggesting a musical event. From everywhere, people were streaming towards the place. “Which band is playing?” I heard somebody ask. “The New York Philharmonic,” was the answer, and I noticed several big boxes containing programs lined up by the path. It wasn’t clear whether they were up for grabs, but maybe the information booths lined up on the other side of the lawn could help me out. On the way there I noticed other essential items required to guarantee that a mass event will run smoothly - garbage cans and portable WCs.

At the information booth a friendly volunteer informed me that this was a free concert, handed me a program and invited me to stay. “It’s too bad, I have to go and teach,” I replied. “What do you teach?” “Piano,” I answered, and the moment I said it, the music established a connection between us. “Come back Friday evening, there’s another concert” she suggested. I promised to think it over, even though I knew that there wasn’t much to think about. I had already made the decision.

Friday was humid, and the sky was overcast. At 4 pm, the website was still informing people that the concert was going to take place, regardless of the weather. I concluded that the forecast was unfavorable, and got on the train. I arrived early enough to take a look around. I sat down on a bench and casually engaged in “people watching”. This kind of entertainment and learning experience is always available in New York, entirely free. Listen to the sounds of an unknown language as if they were music. Listen and watch, and chances are you will feel what they express: agitation, calm, sadness or joy.

I wondered where the lady was from who was sitting at the other end of the bench. Her elegant summer dress, white crochet jacket and high heeled shoes stood out against jeans, shorts and sneakers most people were wearing. She clearly wasn’t planning to sit on the lawn. She wore make up and sat with her ankles crossed, like a client in a waiting room, expecting to be called up any moment. A folded umbrella lay on the bench, and she held her purse firmly on her lap In a soft, but determined voice she turned down everyone who asked to sit down on the place next to her in slightly accented English. “French,” I guessed. When she finally made a call on her cell phone, I realized she spoke Russian.

I never found out who the mysterious friend was she had been waiting for. An elderly man the size of a small giant in shabby, unkempt clothes approached the bench and plunged down, inhabiting slightly more than the space that was left between me and then next person. Muttering to himself, he started to rummage around in the plastic bag he was carrying. When his mumbling changed to a soft and persistent hum I got up and headed for the lawn, relieved to give him more room.

The lawn had filled up. Babies, toddlers, schoolchildren and teenagers, dogs, at least one cat on a leash, young people, old people, “mainstream” and “sidestream” people, all gathered together to listen to the New York Philharmonic play Copland’s Old American Songs and Mahler’s 1st Symphony. People had been hanging out here for hours. They had spent their time reading, playing games, typing away on their laptops and chattering on cell phones, maybe finishing the week’s business. Now, dinner appeared on the blankets that were spread out on the ground: take- out Pizzas in cardboard boxes, sandwiches, home made salads in plastic containers, a multi-course menu on a tablecloth with real china and wine glasses. There was a birthday cake with burning candles. It seemed prudent to walk around, rather than step over it.

Gray clouds were hanging low in the sky. It was darker than usual at that hour. On stage the lights were coming on. The musicians entered and sat down. People on the lawn started to light candles. As the voice from the speakers greeted the audience and announced the program, I was still stepping over bikes and baby strollers, trying to find a place not too far from the exit, in case a sudden downpour required a run for shelter.

The music began. People kept settling in. Their coming and going never stopped completely, while the singer sang and the orchestra played. The small stream of people moving formed a counterpoint to the waves of music coming from the stage and from the speakers. They were joined by yet another counterpoint: the voices of nature. Sometimes the wind picked up threateningly. The rustling of the leaves mixed with the sounds of the music, the twittering of birds, the song of the cicadas and the buzz of hushed human voices. All together they formed a rendition of Mahler’s First Symphony that was unique to that place and to that moment. Fireflies lit up here and there and above the dark trees the skyline of New York rose in the distance.

Nature had the last word in the symphony that evening. As the last movement merged into thunder and lightning, the conductor apologized: “This is a terrible place to stop. We’ll continue in a moment.” It wasn’t meant to be, and the sparkling of the fireflies was as close as we got to the fireworks that were to follow the concert.

A couple of days later, I listened to the symphony again at home. It occurred to me that the most perfect recording couldn’t capture the magic of the unfinished performance on that evening in Central Park.

Photographs from a photo competition of “Concerts in the Park” can be found at:

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