Concerts of Note: Central Park’s Musical Highlights

Photo by Ruth Orkin Photo Archive

From headliners like Garth Brooks, who drew a million concertgoers to the North Meadow for “Garthstock” in 1997, to a band entertaining a smattering of people along the paths, music is as much a part of Central Park as its trees and benches. The Park has a storied history as a concert venue, welcoming musicians of all genres to its iconic lawns. Sometimes Mother Nature cooperates, as she did for the Statue of Liberty centennial concert in 1986 with the New York Philharmonic and others that set a Guinness World Record for Largest Audience at a Classical Music Concert (800,000). Other times not, like at the Diana Ross concert in 1983 that drew a similar crowd to the Great Lawn before being shut down by a torrential rainstorm (although Ross returned the next day). But large or small, under clear or cloudy skies, music-making has been an essential part of Central Park from the beginning. Here are some highlights:

July 13, 1859

A grand tradition begins with the first concert to take place in Central Park, in its first year open to the public. The location was a temporary bandshell in the Ramble, where the trees and vegetation were not yet mature and the audience could sprawl out. (It’s easy to forget today that the Ramble’s dense woodlands were created by the Park’s designers, to provide New Yorkers with access to nature.) The mix of classical and band music, including opera selections from Tannhäuser and La Traviata, and Strauss waltzes, set a template for decades to come. Concerts moved to the Mall in 1860, with news reports describing New Yorkers lining carriages up around the edges to listen from their comfortable seats.

September 19, 1918

Famous names from Broadway and opera joined forces on the Mall for a benefit concert during World War I. Al Jolson, George M. Cohen, and world-renowned Italian tenor Enrico Caruso performed, accompanied by the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, for a crowd estimated at 50,000. Caruso gave a nod to Allied Forces by singing Cohen’s “Over There” in English, then in French.

The Bandshell see from across the width of the Mall on a beautiful summer day.

The Conservancy completed a comprehensive restoration of the Naumburg Bandshell in May 2021. That summer, the stage welcomed an open-air Italian opera, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, and a Five Browns concert, which featured five Steinway concert grand pianos.

September 29, 1923

The Naumburg Bandshell was inaugurated with a concert by the Goldman Band, including the premiere of “On the Mall,” by bandleader E.F. Goldman. The march tune became a favorite because of the audience participation that was written in—after the first round was played by the band, the audience was encouraged to whistle or sing along to the next. “On the Mall '' became a standard of band repertoire, and Goldman Band concerts became a Central Park fixture. Performances five nights a week during the 1920s helped city dwellers escape their hotbox apartments in the days before air-conditioning. An estimated 20,000 people turned out for one concert in June 1929; 30,000 for a 1937 concert. Goldman Band concerts continued until 1956, but the Bandshell remains a popular outdoor concert venue. Recently restored by the Central Park Conservancy, it has been home to the Naumburg Orchestral Concerts—one of the world's oldest, free outdoor classical concert series—for more than a century.

August 10, 1965

New York Philharmonic Concerts in the Park began on Sheep Meadow, sponsored by Schlitz Beer. The brewery boasted in a subsequent ad that it was “The Night Beethoven Outdrew the Beatles,” setting the Central Park crowd of 70,00 against the 55,000 that heard the Fab Four at Shea Stadium a few days later. The crowds only got bigger: 75,000 people were drawn to a 1966 concert conducted by Leonard Bernstein; an estimated 110,000 to a Tchaikovsky program in 1973. The series continues to this day; the NY Phil returned to the Park’s Great Lawn in the summer of 2022 after a two-year pandemic hiatus.

July 5, 1967

Rock, jazz, and blues were added to the Park’s musical lineup with the Rheingold Music Festival at Wollman Rink presenting Jimi Hedrix, who’d just released Are You Experienced?, and The Young Rascals. Admission wasn’t free, but for a dollar or two festival-goers feasted on performances by everyone from Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington to The Doors and Led Zeppelin. Schaefer Brewing took over the series in 1968, and The Who’s Pete Townshend promptly smashed the sponsor’s onstage sign with his guitar. The series relocated to the Hudson River piers in 1971, but not before ABC filmed performances of a July concert it dubbed “Good Vibrations from Central Park,” with The Beach Boys, Carly Simon, and Ike & Tina Turner.

July 16, 1967

Barbra Streisand looked out from the stage to say, “I can’t believe there are 128,000 people here.” Actually, an estimated 135,000 people filled Sheep Meadow for the first large-scale free pop concert in the Park. Streisand sang 33 songs, ending with a springtime rendition of “Sleep in Heavenly Peace (“Silent Night”); the concert was filmed for a CBS special and the record release, titled “A Happening in Central Park.” Streisand had landed in New York in the wee hours of the morning from Hollywood, where she was filming Funny Girl, barely beating first arrivals who began staking out spots at 6:00 am.

Barbara Streisand concert in Sheep Meadow

Barbra Streisand swapped the Great White Way for stage in Central Park at this now-famous concert.
Photo courtesy of the NYC Parks Photo Archives

May 11, 1968

It wasn’t an official concert, but the number of performers alone made up a sizable audience as 8,000 Girls Scouts gathered on Sheep Meadow to sing “Happy Birthday” to songwriter Irving Berlin, who was turning 80. Berlin had donated royalties from his “God Bless America” to the Boys and Girls Scouts of America, resulting in nearly a half million dollars by that year.

July 31, 1979

James Taylor headlined the last major Sheep Meadow concert, drawing a crowd of 250,000 to an event designed to highlight much-needed repairs to the space and to act as a last hurrah before the meadow was closed to the public for the work—one of the Conservancy’s first restoration projects in the Park. Sales of memorabilia surrounding the event raised funds for resodding and reseeding.

Weekly Walk: Music in the Park

Do you hear that? Whether it’s a public performance, a live concert, or the melody of a singing bird or rustling leaves, there are plenty of examples of music found throughout Central Park. Join us as we open our ears to all that the Park has to offer.

September 13, 1980

Elton John, in his more extreme sartorial days, donned a sequined Donald Duck outfit for the first major pop concert on the Great Lawn, which was also to undergo renovation over the next decade under the newly formed Central Park Conservancy. The rocker gave a shout-out to his friend John Lennon, living nearby in The Dakota, before singing “Imagine.” Just three months later, more than 100,000 people gathered in the Park for a 10-minute silent vigil on December 15 to honor the recently slain Beatle.

September 19, 1981

“Well, it’s great to do a neighborhood concert,” Paul Simon remarked to the crowd of 500,000 on the Great Lawn. What was then the largest crowd in Central Park history had turned out to witness his reunion with Art Garfunkel, the first time the duo of Queens natives had performed together in 11 years. Rumors of a permanent reunion did not pan out, but Simon pulled off a rare Central Park repeat by performing solo on August 5, 1991, to an estimated 600,000 visitors.

Concertgoers gather for a 2019 New York Philharmonic Concert in Central Park

Concertgoers gather for a 2019 New York Philharmonic Concert in the Park, a summertime tradition for many New Yorkers.

June 12, 1982

More than 500,000 people had entered Central Park by mid-afternoon as part of a No Nukes rally that began at the United Nations, where a Special Session on Disarmament was taking place. An all-star lineup for the accompanying Great Lawn concert included James Taylor, Bruce Springsteen, Linda Ronstadt, Crosby Stills & Nash, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

August 7, 1997

New York isn’t really known for its devotion to country music. So how many people would really show up for a concert by Garth Brooks? Answer: a record-breaking one million-plus, many of whom reported traveling some distance for the event, which earned the nickname “Garthstock” after another famously underestimated New York music event. Brooks did add some insurance by inviting hometown favorite Billy Joel, and they joined in the latter’s “New York State of Mind.”

August 14, 2003

The Indigo Girls were in the middle of an afternoon soundcheck for a SummerStage concert at Rumsey Playfield when a rolling blackout that affected the entire Northeast hit. Central Park became a meetup and hangout spot for New Yorkers weathering the blackout, and the Indigo Girls went on that evening for an hour-long, generator-powered set. SummerStage had been inaugurated in 1986 with a concert by Sun Ra Arkestra, ushering in programs focused on a diverse world view of music and dance, and continues to provide concertgoers an eclectic mix of music today.

Huge crowds of visitors at the Homecoming concert in Central Park

It takes a lot of people to make the magic of a concert come alive. Conservancy staff and volunteers prepared for weeks to welcome tens of thousands of visitors to the Homecoming concert.

August 21, 2021

New Yorkers were in a mood to get out and hear some great music after months of pandemic restrictions. And no place but Central Park’s Great Lawn would do for We Love NYC: The Homecoming Concert, an all-star event celebrating the City’s reopening, with a crowd of up to 60,000 (vaccination proof required). The concert aired live worldwide, but storms rolled in as Hurricane Henri moved up the East Coast. Concertgoers had to leave the Park just as Barry Manilow was—ironically—about to begin his hit “I Made It Through the Rain.”

Rebecca Winzenried is a New York–based arts writer, former program editor for the New York Philharmonic, and former editor in chief of Symphony magazine.