Volume 74, Number 52 | May 04 - 10 , 2005

Talking Point

A performance from last season’s Washington Square Music Festival.

A kingdom for a stage: Park needs performance space

By Peggy Friedman

While discussion and conflicts hover over the proposed renovation of Washington Sq. Park, further consideration is needed on the question of the proposed demolition of Teen Plaza and the performance rotunda on its north side. The space was created for the Washington Square Music Festival and has been used by us for more than 30 years, but it is also the al fresco neighborhood performance center.

In 2004, in addition to the Washington Square Music Festival, the following groups made good use of it: Community Board 2 Children’s Halloween Parade; Goldman Memorial Band; New York University Summer Lunchtime Concert Series (twice a week throughout summer); Festival of India; Festival of Jewish Life (Chabad on Washington Sq.); approximately 15 to 20 rallies/protests, including Democrats rallying for John Kerry for president; Sukkot for Sukkos Holiday (Chabad on Washington Sq.); The Village Church; menorah (Chabad on Washington Sq.); traveling high school band performances (eight); early morning yoga throughout summer months; theatrical performances (Gorrilla Rep, Village Idiots, Strange Sister Theater Group, Theater for the New City, etc.); New York Is Book Country; Columbia University Chamber Music Concerts; Arts in the Park (Parks Department-run program through City Parks Foundation and N.Y.U.); and the Fringe Festival NYC. As a longtime resident said, “There are so many wonderful performers in the park — why not make it easy for them, and keep the stage?”

The Washington Square Music Festival is proud to have a long tradition of free classical concerts. We are the third-oldest such group in the city, being junior to the Goldman Band and the Naumburg Concerts. Our board and committee members believe that a permanent, raised performance space in Washington Sq.’s southeast quadrant must be included in the redesign of the park to ensure that this proud tradition continues. Without such a space, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for our performers — and all the other performers that the park welcomes all year — to provide free cultural experiences and entertainment for our community.

Washington Sq. and Greenwich Village have a long history of being “the cradle of the arts” for New York City. It might be hard to remember — as we look at the surrounding expensive real estate — that less than 100 years ago this area was a backwater with inexpensive housing and a reputation for artistic energy and bohemian carryings-on.

The Washington Square Music Festival was founded in 1953 by the Washington Square Association, a civic organization since 1903, and eminent violinist and Villager, Alexander Schneider, a member of the Budapest String Quartet. From the beginning, the concerts featured an incredibly high level of music making that was free to all who cared to listen.

The concerts quickly became a summer tradition. Everyone came: proper ladies wearing white gloves, black-clad existentialists carrying a volume of Sartre under their arms, homeless people who forgot their problems listening to Mozart, hipsters, families with children, young couples holding hands, older couples with their arms around each other, visitors from exotic lands like Brooklyn on the first steps to self-discovery. Oh yes, I was there too, a teenager handing out programs, and enjoying talking to the musicians. My friends often climbed trees and looked down from their leafy private balcony. I avoided my mother, Peggy Campbell, chairperson of the Concert Committee, preferring to sit with my friends.

Big changes happened during the park renovation in the early 1970s. Landscape architect Robert Nichols wanted to open the park more, make it more inviting for the entire community, and he could often be seen, riding his bike from community meeting to community meeting, often throwing down his plans on someone’s kitchen table.

Out of these discussions came the idea to build our permanent stage. The site near the Garibaldi statue was a perfect spot for free al fresco performances of all kinds because it was the furthest away from the residences on the north and west sides of the square. So we moved from our original space in front of the Holley statue, a space graced by Maestro Schneider, and, in 1960, a then-unknown soprano, Marilyn Horne.

Over the years, other world-class artists have come down to Washington Sq.: among them are Wynton Marsalis, Gunther Schuller and our late music director, oboist and conductor Henry Schuman, who led the Festival Chamber Orchestra in some unforgettable performances of Beethoven symphonies. Our present music director, cellist Lutz Rath, creates unusual combinations of bold musical contrasts.

In July 2004, Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times, describing the opening of another season of the festival, wrote of “a substantive and unusual program...[and] audiences who truly care about these concerts, which was clear from the large, attentive and appreciative crowd that turned up on a balmy night for this one.”

The white-gloved ladies are gone, and our audience demographics comprise a cross-cultural rainbow, with businesspeople sitting next to Japanese tourists, bikers, street people and older Villagers who were once younger and have been enjoying the concerts for years. We reserve space for local senior groups, the Caring Community, Greenwich House and the Hudson Guild, and families with small children are welcome to sit on the ground in the front.

But we need a stage — a permanent, raised space with a railing around it, so the conductor doesn’t fall off. We hope our neighbors and partners will help us persuade the Parks Department that the rotunda, or something like it, needs to be included in the renovation plans. As of now the plan calls for informal performance spaces in three areas of the park — Garibaldi being one of them — and the Teen Plaza and rotunda being replaced with a large lawn.

The Washington Square Music Festival would like to look forward to 2009 and its 50th summer of free concerts, secure in the knowledge that we have a permanent performing space, not an ad hoc stage that must be rebuilt each time by a Parks Department that may be under different and less-sympathetic management.

Friedman is executive director, Washington Square Music Festival

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