Elkan Naumburg (1835–1924) was a contemporary of J. P. Morgan, Henry Clay Frick, and Andrew Carnegie. Like them, he made a fortune in the early years of the 20th century, and like them, he was a major philanthropist. Unlike them, he was born to a Jewish family that immigrated to the United States to escape the burgeoning anti-Semitic wave spreading through Bavaria, their homeland. Naumburg was 15 years old when he arrived in Baltimore. A lover of classical music, but unable to afford tickets to concerts, he later turned his passion to a gift to others, specifically New Yorkers.
Horse-drawn buggies carried men sporting straw boaters and women in long skirts with bustles to the first Naumburg Orchestral Concerts in 1905, which were lit by gaslight. 114 years later, they’re still a highlight of the New York summer season. Over the years, Irving Berlin, the Grateful Dead, and Fidel Castro have appeared on the Naumburg stage, but the main focus has always been on classical orchestral music. Billed as “the oldest continuous free outdoor western classical music concert series in the world,” it’s a beloved part of the city’s cultural heritage.
The Perfect Temporary Home The Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park was completed in 1923, about the same time another jewel of New York was being built. Temple Emanu-El, at Fifth Avenue and 65th Street, also funded by Jewish philanthropists, is an architectural and acoustic wonder. Its soaring 103-foot high ceiling and more than 60 stained glass windows are filled with spiritual symbols. This year, as the Naumburg Bandshell undergoes repairs, the summer concert series will be held in Temple Emanu-El. When this season’s musicians take the stage, they and the audiences will, in many ways, be touching history.
A Fabulous LineupThe Knights, a New York based orchestra, opened the season on June 18th with a program broadcast on WQXR, including works by Felix Mendelssohn, Benjamin Britten, Lisa Bielawa, and poetry by Walt Whitman set to music. Upcoming concerts include the Venice Baroque Orchestra, joining the Naumburg series for the first time on July 10th. They’ll perform a mostly Italian program with works by Antonio Vivaldi, George Frideric Handel, Tomaso Albinoni, Benedetto Marcello, and Francesco Geminiani.
Boston-based, Grammy award-nominated A Far Cry performs July 18th, bringing a contemporary spin with two works composed within the last decade, along with Georg Muffat’s “Concerto Grosso No. 12” and Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade in C Major, Op. 48.”
On July 30th, New York’s Orchestra of St. Luke’s will focus on 20th and 21st century music, giving equal billing to male and female composers. Works by Anna Clyne, Florence Price, Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland will be performed, with soprano Jasmine Muhammad. The finale of the season will be on August 6th, when Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, also based in New York, presents “Pasión: A Concert of Spanish and South American Music.”
An Ongoing Treat for New YorkersAll the concerts are free, but all require tickets, (available online). If there are seats still available, it might be possible to score a last-minute ticket at the door. Temple Emanu-El opens at 6:15 for each of the 7 p.m. concerts, and suggests allowing extra time for security checks. These renowned musicians and sumptuous programs are, as was inscribed by Elkan Naumburg on the Central Park bandshell, “presented to the City Of New York and its music lovers” from a kindred spirit, almost a century gone, but still reaching and enriching lives in the city.