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Cancellation of Philharmonic's Summer Parks Tour Draws Mixed Reactions

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POLL: What do you think of the Philharmonic's decision?

The New York Philharmonic's announcement on Tuesday that it is cancelling its annual round of free concerts in city parks this summer has been met with mixed reactions from fans, editorial writers and business owners who rely on the July tour. Some have called it the loss of a cherished tradition; others argue that the concerts had lost much of their initial purpose.

The orchestra cited unspecified scheduling conflicts as the reason for the cancellation and said that the concerts will return in 2012. In the meantime, a free concert is planned with tenor Andrea Bocelli in Central Park on September 15.

“It’s a definite loss, especially after the winter we’ve had in New York,” said Brooklyn borough historian Ron Schweiger, referring to the Prospect Park concerts. “To find something to replace it is going to be hard. Leonard Bernstein is probably turning over in his grave in Green Wood Cemetery right now.”

Caterer Amanda Smith, who has provided gourmet picnic baskets for audience members since 2002, said "as a New Yorker it’s a huge disappointment.” Last year, Smith supplied 300 picnic baskets for the patrons who sit in the VIP section near the stage and another 300 to 500 meals for fans sitting on blankets. She was notified of the cancellation two weeks ago.

“Yes, it will impact my business,” she explained. “We’d ordered all the bags and were on our way to programming it.”

The producers of the Grucci fireworks display, which has accompanied the parks concerts since 1969 expressed similar disappointment. "We do 300 programs a year but when you lose any of your programs it’s losing a tradition," said Philip Butler, a Grucci producer. "It’s disheartening of course.”

Others were less glum about the news. Sedgwick Clark, the editor of Musical America, the classical music industry directory, complained that the Central Park concerts are mostly excuses for New Yorkers to socialize. "The people there talked on cell phones, they played radios, they talked among themselves,” he said. “You could barely hear a note of music over the din. The reason for going to this concert has simply become a social event. This isn’t a musical event any more.”

In an editorial, the New York Daily News criticized the Philharmonic for cancelling the parks tour while continuing to perform at the Vail Valley Music festival from July 22-29. "New York taxpayers have already bought their tickets. And so the Philharmonic needs to fulfill its end of the bargain by playing as promised," the editorial stated. A Philharmonic spokesperson didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

A Tradition with Roots in the Wagner Administration

The New York Philharmonic started its summer parks series in August 1965 at the urging of then-mayor Robert F. Wagner. The concerts, which were alternately conducted by William Steinberg and Seiji Ozawa featured Benny Goodman and Aaron Copland as soloists (the latter as pianist in his Piano Concerto). Milwaukee’s Schlitz Brewing Company sponsored the initial concerts.

The tradition quickly became hugely popular. Leonard Bernstein conducted Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring to a record Central Park crowd of 75,000 in 1966. According to the New York City Parks Department, 110,000 people turned out for an all-Tchaikovsky performance in August 1973.

At its peak in the 1990s, the series drew between 50,000 and 75,000 patrons in Central Park and expanded to include venues in New Jersey as well as Suffolk, Nassau and Westchester counties.

Last year, with the orchestra reporting a $4.5 million deficit, concerts were shared in Central Park with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, in an effort to defray the costs. For budgetary reasons, the Philharmonic sent a brass-and-percussion ensemble to the City University of New York's Center for the Arts on Staten Island and the Hostos Center for the Arts and Culture in the Bronx, instead of the full orchestra. A concert at the PNC Bank Arts Center, in Holmdel, N.J., was also dropped from its schedule.

“There’s something really special about sitting on a blanket in the middle of the Long Meadow on a summer night,” said Eric McClure, co-founder of civic group Park Slope Neighbors. “It certainly was a surprise and a disappointment.”