N.Y. Journal: Music for the masses


The miraculous thing about New York in the summer is that everything---from plays with Anne Hathaway to movies under the Brooklyn Bridge to jazz and rock and orchestras in every park in the city---is free.

This summer, I saw Anne Hathaway act charming in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night in Central Park. I went to Prospect Park and heard These United States, Phosphorescent, and Dr. Dog for a $3 donation. Then this week the New York Philharmonic put on a concert and played to a reported 60,000 people and I was among them, on the Great Lawn in Central Park.

I love this free, or nearly free stuff. It's an opportunity to get together with friends, let my finances recover from apartment deposits, and feel good about seeing something worthwhile. The parks are beautiful, and after months of rain all we want to do is sit in them.

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The oddity, though, is that I think I would enjoy these events just a little bit more if I paid for them. You get what you pay for, and when I go to these concerts I'm really just going to the park, sitting on a blanket with friends, and listening to some music playing in the background. The atmosphere makes it hard for me to concentrate, and you always have people who are willing, like me, to stop paying attention to the music and talk instead.

There's nothing like seeing a concert in Carnegie Hall, which has all of this weighty history attached to it. When you go there, you're paying not just for the concert that night but for all the concerts that have been there before. The physical environment tells you that you're hearing and seeing something significant. You sometimes feel the same in old churches, where it's just easier to feel that you're participating in something sacred.

But just like in churches, when the symphony strains float toward me, I'm still hearing something significant whether the surroundings help me hear it or not. It's good to bring culture out to the masses sitting on their beer-soaked picnic blankets out on the Great Lawn and sweating in their shorts and T-shirts with baguettes poking out of their backpacks. And I count myself among the uncultured of those masses, not having listened to classical music since I stopped taking piano lessons and the post-college inertia shriveled my attention span. There is a risk in taking culture out of an environment that protects it and justifies it and away from an audience that's sacrificed something to be there, but it's a risk worth taking.


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