By Nathan Mayberg
BETHEL July 4, 2006 In one of the most spectacular evenings in Sullivan County history, more than 16,000 people were wowed Saturday by the performances of the New York Philharmonic, singer Audra McDonald, pianist Alexander Kobrin, a top-class fireworks display and the impressive architecture of the buildings at the naturally beautiful site of the original Woodstock concert in Bethel.
The Bethel Woods Center for the Arts is a culmination of many years of work and vision by Liberty entrepreneur Alan Gerry and the Gerry Foundation. When he took the stage before the concert began, the beaming Gerry was met with a long, standing applause, and he returned his appreciation to the crowd by waving repeatedly.
Aint this stuff great? he said with a smile. Hopefully, this is a turning point for the county.
We want them to come back! he said of the philharmonic.
Opening night was a resounding success. The philharmonic led by the highly enthusiastic, comedic, charming and crowd-pleasing conductor Bramwell Tovey brought a half-dozen standing ovations with performances of the world-famous 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky, complete with 16 cannon shots and loud bells; Brodins Polovtskian Dances from Prince Igoor; George Gershwins Strike Up the Band; and a salute to Woodstock with Jimi Hendrixs Purple Haze which brought the crowd to their feet, clapping and dancing along.
One of the worlds greatest orchestras accompanied one of the worlds greatest singers as McDonald sang Gershwins Summertime; My Mans Gone Now, Fascinating Rhythm and It Might as Well Be Spring by Richard Rodgers; Hurry Its Lovely Up Here, by Burton Lane; and Stephen Sondheims There Wont be Trumpets and Cant Stop Talking About Him.
Sergei Rachmaninoffs Rhapsody on a Them of Paganini was performed by classical pianist Alexander Kobrin by memory, filling in for the world-famous Lang Lang, who was ill. The orchestra accompanied him in a delightful performance which drew a standing ovation.
Tovey kept the crowd jubilant and entertained with his animated direction and funny jokes. He was able to get nearly the entire crowd to stand up and perform the Mexican wave in honor of soccers World Cup. He called the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts the best outdoor facility in the world.
As two large screens on either side gave close-up shots of the entire symphony, horns sounded, along with a motoring percussion section, about three dozen violinists and two dozen violas, cellos and bass players. An excellent xylophone player was key to several songs.
The philharmonic fittingly finished with John Philip Sousas The Stars and Stripes Forever, the official march of the United States. The crowd-pleaser was another dynamic performance and led to the fireworks, which were second to none in the recent memory of locals.
The Reviews Are In
I could die tomorrow, said former Town of Bethel Supervisor Vicky Simpson. Ive waited forever to hear the 1812 Overture, and its three miles from my house.
Everything was perfect, said Jim Andersen of Black Lake.
He expects the philharmonic to return to Bethel: With the reception they got tonight . . . I dont think they would get a better reception anywhere else. I hope they will make this their summer home.
What a great day for Sullivan County! said Kenny Steinglass, who has a summer home in Black Lake.
Steinglass was one of many at the show who attended the original Woodstock Festival in 1969. As a first-year student at Harvard Medical School, he went to the concert as a volunteer. He bought rolls from Jeffersonville and gave them away to hungry concertgoers. In return, one attendee gave him a pair of sunglasses, that he brought to Saturdays concert.
On Friday, he retired as a chest surgeon at Columbia Presbyterian in New York City, bringing everything full circle.
Steinglass added that the successful show was important for a county that has seen its share of broken promises.
Alan Gerry deserves a lot of credit, stated Steinglass a phrase which was repeated often during the day and night.
Andersen and Steinglass joked that the only thing missing from the concert was the thunderstorms which frequented nearly every other concert ever performed at the Woodstock site.
Indeed, the clear skies and the wonderful show was a much-needed relief to a county plagued by the worst flooding in its history just a few days earlier.
Who could have ever dreamt that we would have a venue like this in Sullivan County? said former Town of Thompson Supervisor David Kaufman. This is the beginning of a very strong turnaround for the county.
Lori Orestano-James, a professional singer herself who also directs the Tri-Valley Central School music program, was thrilled with the performance and the setup.
She said it was absolutely fabulous that we have this caliber of musicianship at a legendary site.
She called the acoustics of the performance one of the best for an outdoor facility and was particularly delighted by the Rachmaninoff piece, which is her favorite song.
Officials Offer Praise
Before the show, Paul Guenther, Chairman of the New York Philharmonic Board, called the site wonderful. Absolutely incredible. Alan Gerry has done an amazing job, and we are proud to be a part of it.
Asked whether the philharmonic would like to make Bethel its summer home, he said he would see how the concert went first.
It would be nice to have a summer home, but he said it was currently not a priority.
This is a great opportunity. Doing something for New York State is very important to us, he stated.
Former Congressman Ben Gilman called the concert beforehand a great, historic event for the whole region. This is one of the great centers in the whole world. Hopefully, it will be an economic boost to the whole region. I am sure it will be. Im sure it will give Tanglewood competition. I want to thank Alan Gerry for his imagination to produce this wonderful site.
A double wow, spectacular, awesome, said New York State Senator John Bonacic before the performance started. Everybody in New York is going to know about Sullivan County and want to visit.
New York State Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther, who (like Bonacic) brought her children along, wrote a letter to Gerry in appreciation. She described the center as unlike anything Ive ever seen. Your attention to detail, your uncompromising aesthetic and desire to keep Bethel Woods in harmony with the beauty and nature of the site, plus your commitment to the history of this land do not go unnoticed. I thank you for believing in this project and believing in Sullivan County.
Town of Bethel Councilman Daniel Sturm said before the concert began that this is the start of something special. I dont think people realize how lucky Bethel is.
A Show of Shows
One would be hard-pressed to remember another event in the countys history with so many well-dressed people in one setting, although many at the show also dressed casually. The crowd was a wide mix of families, baby boomers and senior citizens.
The concert was not without a few issues, albeit minor in comparison to the larger impact. Traffic was reportedly backed up for an hour bumper to bumper on 17B getting in and about an hour on the way out.
Food prices ranged from a low of $5 for a box of Cracker Jack up to $7.50 for a Chicken Caesar wrap. Some lamented the prohibition on bringing in food for picnics.
But overall, the response was highly enthusiastic even before the show. Martin Spiro, who spends his summers in Woodbourne away from Long Island, has been traveling to Tanglewood for many years to hear classical concerts.
Were very excited, he said. You can see more here than Tanglewood. It is much wider. The sound is dynamic and better. Weve been waiting years for this to open.
Another one of the many who were at the original Woodstock, Spiro said there were obviously quite a few differences between the two concerts.
Dennis Ingburg, another summer resident of Woodbourne, made mention of another Sullivan County legend: A casino is important. But this is ten times more important. Were tired of driving three hours to Massachusetts [for Tanglewood].
Hennie Matalon, who was sitting with the Woodbourne summer crowd, agreed that we need the culture.
Joyce Salimeno of Wurtsboro called Bethel Woods the best thing that could happen to Sullivan County.
Her husband Pat compared the site to something out of a magazine.
God bless Alan Gerry!