Volume 78 / Number 3 - June 18 - 24, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since

Washington Square Music Festival is a classic

Washington Square Music Festival
Begins June 21 at 5 p.m.
Continues July 8, 15, 22 and 29 at 8 p.m.
Washington Square Park, Southeast quadrant
Free; 212-252-3621; washingtonsquaremusicfestival.org

By Lawrence Everett Forbes

Host to an eclectic array of singers, acoustic guitarists, drum circles and boom boxes, Washington Square Park is also known for its classic music concerts. This summer, the Washington Square Music Festival draws seniors, skaters, students, singles and families to its free chamber music concerts. Celebrating its 50th season, the festival kicks off with a concert featuring the Michael Packer Blues Band, the jaunty Celtic folk of Three Pints Shy, and the Delta blues of Pork Chop Willie, which includes Kinney Kimbrough, son of the legendary Junior Kimbrough.

“The goal is to present the broadest possible musical picture of society,” explained cellist Lutz Rath, music director of the festival. Rath has held the position since 2001, when the baton was posthumously passed on by oboist and former musical director Henry Schuman. Under Rath’s tutelage, the festival has featured classical, jazz, folk and salsa works spanning the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

Last year’s festival also widened its scope to include music that makes a political statement. “I choose composers who have a larger sense of cultural and political aspects—composers who provoke,” Rath said. “Viktor Ullmann’s ‘Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christophe Rilke’ was written in a concentration camp before he was gassed… Art and music should make people think critically.”

Peggy Friedman, WSMF’s executive director, agrees. When she was 14, Friedman was recruited by her mother, Peggy Campbell, former chairman of the festival, to stuff envelopes for the event. “My mother felt it was a shame that there weren’t more black conductors,” said Friedman. “She heard about Henry Lewis—then a young 29-year-old guest composer at the Los Angeles Philharmonic—and set out to recruit him. He agreed on the condition that his wife, Marilyn Horne, [who performed as the voice of Dorothy Dandridge in “Carmen Jones”] be allowed to perform.”

Campbell had been with the festival since its second season in 1934 and became chairman in 1956. She considered the festival a labor of love and worked tirelessly to keep its high-caliber reputation intact. Friedman, who worked with festival manager Jean Lyman Goetz in a public relations firm, took the reins after her mother’s passing in 1987. In Friedman’s hands, the festival strikes a delicate balance between the perceived pretentiousness that comes with classical music and the casual bohemian style of the Village.

“We want the audience to relate to the music and the players,” states Friedman. “We want them to feel this is their festival, which is why Lutz added jazz to the program. He has a broad understanding of European tradition and works to bridge the past with the present.” Friedman and Ruth make quite the formidable pair, the latter the organizational yin to the latter’s creative yang.

When asked how the current construction in the park might affect the festival’s mission, Friedman expressed a combination of concern and optimism. “The circuit box we [WSMF] purchased for the concerts was removed during the renovation. The Parks Department has not quite solved the outlet problem for the concerts, but we have enough to throw the hootenanny. They have told us that they are working on it.”

Founded in 1953, the festival was sidelined by construction in the late ’60s to early ’70s (hence the five-year anniversary lapse). Neither rain nor construction, however, will stop the show. “The Washington Street Music Festival is about people getting together,” states Friedman. “It’s the musical village of New York City. In New York, you have the largest assembly of talented musicians from all over the world. Together, they make a musical village—and you can’t stop a village.”

Upcoming concerts, held every Tuesday in July, feature the festival ensemble with harpsichord soloist Gerald Ranck (July 8), Lutz Rath and mezzo-soprano Stephanie Houtzeel (July 15), and pianist David Oei (July 22). The Charles Mingus Orchestra performs Mingus’ original jazz compositions on July 29.

Rain location is NYU’s Fredrick Loewe Theater, 35 West Fourth Street.


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