For Classical Music, Every Summer Is a Liberation

A Philadelphia Orchestra concert at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.Credit…James Estrin/The New York Times

Consider classical music a late bloomer. In New York, as the city emerges from its winter hibernation — the snow on tree branches replaced by dreamily pastel cherry blossoms, the short, sleepy days extended by increasingly dramatic sunsets — performers tend to remain indoors. A concert in May doesn’t look so different from one in January.

But then comes summer.

Around early June, orchestras and opera companies close out their seasons, and music making begins to take on new, liberated forms. Instruments that seem so precious onstage make their way outdoors, suddenly looking as casual as the artists wielding them, who sometimes swap their formal concert attire for, well, whatever they want.

Samantha Lake with Make Music New York, on Lexington Avenue.
The Metropolitan Opera’s float at the New York City Pride March.

The old-hat claims of classical music’s elitism and lack of approachability just don’t hold up in summer. Performances pop up as if out of thin air; the New York Philharmonic puts on a series of free outdoor shows that sprawl across the city’s boroughs; everyone, regardless of skill or expertise, is invited to take part in local celebrations for the global Fête de la Musique on the June 21 solstice.

A Boston Symphony Orchestra concert at Tanglewood in Massachusetts.

During this season, a singer from the Metropolitan Opera might appear on a makeshift stage or in a band shell, performing for passers-by and die-hard fans alike. Friends and families gather on picnic blankets to camp out, some for hours, and enjoy one another’s company, eat and play games before the day culminates in a Philharmonic concert played for thousands more people than could fit inside the orchestra’s home at Lincoln Center.

The Met — an institution that throughout its history has been a haven for queer fans but only recently has represented people like them onstage — leaves its velveteen temple to let its hair down and celebrate Pride in the streets, complete with its own float, a mobile concert sung by the likes of the countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo and the mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe.

A Death of Classical concert at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.
Bard College.

Anything, after all, can be a stage in the summer: a patch of grass, a barn, the catacombs of a cemetery. Music moves farther and farther away from concert halls, away from cities into the countryside and mountains. New Yorkers wind their way up the Hudson Valley to the bucolic grounds of Caramoor, or to the expansive lawns of Bard College and its sculptural, Frank Gehry-designed Fisher Center.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra, which in town has the air of a bastion of tradition, embraces the relaxed — and relaxing — grounds of its idyllic Tanglewood campus in the Berkshires. Students also stay there for the summer, exploring new music with monastic focus and learning from some of the finest artists in the field.

The Met’s float at the Pride March.
Pride in New York.
Joan Forsyth with Make Music New York.

Things that would be unfathomable in a concert hall suddenly seem possible. The cannons of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” can be literal cannons. The joy of music making has room to breathe, inviting the sounds of nature to join in: a chorus of birds and insects, a roar of thunder, hopefully not the needy wail of a car alarm.

A New York Philharmonic concert in Central Park.
The Philharmonic’s concert.
A Philadelphia Orchestra concert in Saratoga Springs.

Soon, it won’t be so pleasant to lay out a picnic spread while waiting for the Philharmonic. As the trees shed their leaves and the sunsets come earlier, the concert hall will become a refuge. But come next summer, so will the outdoors.

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