Washington Square Music Festival Dramatically Scaled Back Performances at Washington Square Park This Year Due to Park Redesign; Final Concert of 54th Season Tonight

Charles Mingus Orchestra on previous stage at WSP

Updated-There is a story behind the scaled back number of concerts the Washington Square Music Festival is performing this year at Washington Square Park. Traditionally, the Festival, which has performed in its namesake park for 54 years, would present four or five concerts each season at the landmark park. This year, the number of concerts taking place was scaled back to two. The other performances have taken place at nearby St. Joseph’s Church, traditionally the ‘rain date’ venue. The final concert of the season takes place tonight at Washington Square.

Executive Director Peggy Friedman told the New York Times that the festival “kept clear of the park it was named for this summer, partly because of construction and partly because the music on its first two programs was better suited to the festival’s rain space — St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, on Sixth Avenue at Waverly Place — than to the traditional outdoor setting.”

However, that’s not entirely accurate; perhaps she didn’t think the New York Times was going to care about all the specifics behind this decision but Ms. Friedman knew this blog would. It would be hard for any one involved in the years’ long saga behind the park’s redesign not to have known that the stage would ultimately not work out for the Music Festival. Last year was the first year the Washington Square Music Festival (WSMF) performed on it after Phase II opened in June.

The reconfigured stage was forced upon the community and the park by the Parks Department despite the concerns the Music Festival – and pretty much everyone involved – expressed. The WSMF said publicly upon viewing the plans that they anticipated problems with the sight lines, the size of the stage, the height of the stage (28″ versus a standard and acceptable 36″), the fact that there is no railing, and no real back stage.

One of the ‘stipulations’ of the “Gerson-Quinn Agreement” was that the redesigned stage work for the Washington Square Music Festival. The Gerson-Quinn Agreement was an intervention of sorts by former NY City Council Member Alan Gerson – WSP fell in his district – and Council Speaker Christine Quinn – neighboring parts of Greenwich Village were, and are, in her district – which acted as a quasi-blueprint to alleviate some of the concerns the community had about park’s redesign. It was clear all along that it wouldn’t.

However, if the Music Festival had spoken up to the Landmarks Preservation Commission in April of 2009 before Phase II was approved and stated ‘it just wouldn’t work,’ the Parks Department and designer George Vellonakis would have had to go back to the drawing board. Instead, the WSMF told the Landmarks Preservation Commission they reluctantly supported the plans. The reason the organization did not (and I gather felt it could not) speak out is because they are under the “auspices” of the Washington Square Association — which was in favor of the Bloomberg Administration’s redesign of the park. And so, they sealed their fate and the fate of others who would utilize the stage by not speaking out.

Executive Director Peggy Friedman told me before the season started why the Music Festival had scaled back this year:

We faced two challenges last summer on the new stage that need to be addressed  1) the total lack of security and the inability to contact police help 2) the overwhelming heat now that the trees that used to surround the stage near Garibaldi have been cut down.  We are hiring private security which is a considerable new expense and probably performing in the Wenger Wagon, a covered stage which must be rented from Parks, another new expenseTherefore we have designed two indoor concerts of music that is more appropriate in a controlled, indoor space.  It is cheaper to do concerts indoors and St. Joseph’s has been very generous to us.

Shortly after the 2009 LPC hearing at which the new stage was addressed, a comment came in to this blog with some interesting feedback from reader Elton:

“Praise be to Commissioner Roberta Brandes Gratz for her stand in redirecting the Phase II design proposals toward stated community needs. Another community need I feel is getting very short shrift in Phase II is the PERFORMANCE STAGE. Its design and location should be restudied, especially in the light of potentially expanding long-range uses of the park, and in line with the recommendations envisioned by many park-use evaluations. For instance, in past seasons, attending musical performances at Teen Plaza, one must contend with competition from being seated in the middle of a crossroads, limited stage area, no acoustical baffles or wind (or even slight, provisional weather) protection, etc., and Phase II envisions even more compromised conditions. Why can’t a STATE OF THE ART PERFORMANCE STAGE be insisted on as a FOCUS and (geometric, if that’s the winning buzzword) FEATURE of that axis of the park, not a badly-served and watered-down afterthought? Wouldn’t this be an essential part of a long-range plan to underscore the park’s continued and expanding viability as a performance venue?”

However, there was no rethinking of the plan.

Update: Peggy Friedman responded to this post disputing the statement that the Washington Square Association had influence on what she said before the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

At some point, years from now, I believe this stage will be readdressed but, for now, you can catch the last concert of the Washington Square Music Festival’s season at the park tonight at 8 p.m.

July 31, 8 pm: DEEP SAHARA BAND — free, Washington Square, main stage south of Fifth Avenue
Abdoulaye Alhassane Touré leader and vocal soloist performs music of West Africa, the roots of American jazz, on guitar, Kora,(African harp), ngoni (ancestor of American banjo), talking drum, tama, drum set, conga, djembé (a rope-tuned skin-covered drum played with bare hands)

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Review of first concert this season New York Times (July 11), Dickinson and Dylan Thomas, Set for Strings and Voices

Review, New York Times (July 19th), Echoes of Vienna and Byron

Previously at WSP Blog:

Landmarks Preservation Commission Approves Phase II of WSP Redesign; Parks Department Agrees to Increase # of Alcoves

On the 2011 season

Photo: Nan Melville

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