The Changing Face of Parks Concerts, with Bocelli as Barometer

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Earlier this month – after weeks of anticipation and an amazing amount of preparation -- 60,000 die hard fans gathered on the Great Lawn in Central Park to hear tenor Andrea Bocelli sing. There was rain off and on all day, and it was windy and cold. For some time, it wasn’t clear that the concert would actually take place.

But the show did go on – big time! The Bocelli fans were wet and cold, but as far as I could tell, they were not disappointed. In fact, they were even wowed by some unexpected surprises along the way. (Full disclosure – this author was in the middle of the action representing WQXR for the intermission breaks being produced by WNET for the television special which will air in December on PBS.)

Andrea Bocelli Live in Central Park was hands down the most ambitious outdoor concert event that I have ever witnessed. And I’ve been around for a lot of them: Pavarotti in Central Park, The Three Tenors in Giants’ Stadium (and under the Eiffel Tower in Paris) and Andrea Bocelli’s Statue of Liberty Concert to name a few. The gigantic stage housed the New York Philharmonic conducted by Alan Gilbert, the young and very talented voices of the Westminster Symphonic Choir and an amazing lineup of guest artists including baritone Bryn Terfel, jazz trumpeter Chris Botti, pop music impresario David Foster and pop legends Celine Dion and Tony Bennett.

By the time the second half of the concert began it was quite cold, but the rain had finally cleared and there was a gorgeous moon shining over the stage. The operatic portion of the program was over and the Philharmonic began the act with the Candide overture. Bryn Terfel sang a wonderful rendition of Home on the Range, and Bocelli delighted the audience with some classic Neapolitan tunes and pop standards like More and Volare.

Celine Dion took the stage to join the tenor in a performance of their award winning duet The Prayer. A hush came over the audience, and suddenly the lights from a sea of iPhones floated above the crowd documenting the moment thousands of times over for posterity. For me this was a milestone – a real sign of the times. To think that not so long ago, we held candles and cigarette lighters at rock concerts and now it’s all about electronics?  It kind of hurts my brain to think about it.

The iPhones stayed high as Tony Bennett took the stage to sing New York, New York with Bocelli. The concert continued with the tenor and the choir singing Amazing Grace, his signature tune Time to Say Goodbye and ended in the stratosphere with Nessun Dorma from Puccini’s Turandot.    

When Pavarotti sang in Central Park in 1993 (he sang Nessun Dorma, too, that night), they say that there were a record 500,000 in attendance.  It wasn’t taped for future broadcast, it was broadcast live for all to see that very night. As I recall, the audience was calm and completely cooperative. They brought picnics and thoroughly enjoyed themselves. Many of them made an entire day of it. 

Thursday’s crowd was much, much smaller but certainly no less calm and cooperative. And yet the mechanisms in place for crowd control were overwhelming to the point that I actually had trouble working my way out of the maze of barricades when it was time to go home. Picnics were not allowed. The audience had to stand in long lines for several hours before even getting into the park. Even more to the point, a ticket was mandatory for this free concert! Another sign of the times, perhaps? I found myself wondering how different things might have been were it not for 9/11. 

The Philharmonic has announced that it plans to return to Central Park next summer. We all have our fingers crossed that it will happen. And, hopefully, they will keep tradition intact: open seating for all, picnics allowed (all day if you would like) and fabulous fireworks after the beautiful music is over!