July 1st arrived, and as promised, the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts had its gala opening. And its FABULOUS! I don’t think Alan Gerry cut a corner anywhere — even the gutters and downspouts on the buildings are copper. But you’re not reading this to hear about the gutters.
The sightlines from everywhere are great. We had seats in Section 4 (stage left) and meandered up to the lawn, where the view of the stage was very good and friends said the sound was great up there, too. Overall, with pavillion seating for 4,800 and lawn seating for 12,000 more, Bethel Woods feels surprisingly intimate. The grassy bowl surrounding the pavillion and stage gives it a very cozy feeling.
The Bethel Woods staff — and there were lots of ’em — were welcoming, friendly and seemed as excited to be there as the audience. Parking, entry, and the obligatory bag check for ‘contraband’ went very smoothly — although the traffic patterns and various parking entries are a bit of a mystery. We drove in from the west on 17B, were directed north on Perry and then east on West Shore and then right into a parking field at the corner of West Shore and Hurd. (Exiting out of that parking lot was quick, too, but off to our right there was a long bumper to bumper backup on Hurd Road.)
It can be a pretty long walk from parking to the entrance and from there down to the Pavillion — something to consider if you have members in your party who can’t walk long distances. There were a few electric carts to help people who might have trouble walking get from the parking fields to the center, but it was a little haphazard and probably a detail still to be worked out. (It was amazing how many details they did have worked out.)
Many, myself included, were expecting a traffic boondoggle and a late start, so were very surprised when, at 7:19PM, with most seats filled, the New York Philharmonic struck up the national anthem, followed by an amazingly brief and heartfelt welcome from Alan Gerry, the philanthropist who made Bethel Woods happen. And that was it for speeches. No politicians. Then the Philharmonic went right into the evening’s program.
I’m not a music critic, so am not even going to try to critique the concert (although friends I was with who are music people said it was, overall, very good — and they all complimented how good the sound was in an outdoor venue.) The first half of the evening was the more ‘classical’, and pianist Alexander Korbin substituting at the last minute for Lang Lang. Audra McDonald headlined the second half with a selection of really crowd pleasing songs.
Bramwell Tovey, the conductor for this Philharmonic concert, was an inspired selection. He was warm, personable and funny — sort of like a cruise director on a ship. He got the audience in his pocket and kept us there, and was simply brilliant at making classical music entertaining. After intermission, he had the audience doing ‘The Wave’.
The audience was so appreciative, and almost everything got a standing ovation. We were just too hyped. The general feeling seemed to be, "Oh, my God, its happening. Its open. And the New York Philharmonic is HERE, in our backyard." It was a palpable, collective yearning of hope for the future.
In the past few weeks, the Philharmonic has been working to downplay expectations and rumor that Bethel Woods may become their summer home. In light of this very public distancing from an ongoing commitment, you could feel the audience trying to will the Philharmonic back with our enthusiasm. Like we’re a collective Sally Fields shouting, "You like us! You really like us!" Please.
After the concert, one widepread topic of conversation was "Do you think the Philharmonic had a good time? I think they had a wonderful time. Did you see so and so smiling every time he looked at the audience."
All those standing ovations weren’t just for the music. They were flirting seductions, hopes that those musicians will think that this is one of the most appreciative and fun places to perform anywhere.
The 1812 overture was hugely fun with the canon blasts. Then a couple of rousing encores (including an orchestral rendition of Jimi Hendrix’ Purple Haze — which was a wonderful nod to the history of the site.) The finale of the evening was a spectacular fireworks display.
I gotta tell you, the evening was much more fun that I had anticipated. As people were leaving, you just saw these huge smiles on peoples’ faces and there was this collective pride in Sullivan County.
Thank you, Alan Gerry.