Bryant Park has announced the lineup for this year's Picnic Performances season, marking the 30th anniversary of the reopening of Bryant Park. It will include more than 20 free jazz concerts, theatrical performances, and dance events staged in the park between May and September.
The city marked a major pandemic-era milestone last June with the return of the annual performances: More than 50,000 people came out over the course of the summer for a series of free outdoor shows in the park, including multiple dates with the New York Philharmonic. While music venues and Broadway theaters were still struggling to reopen and navigate the complicated waters of COVID restrictions, Bryant Park turned into a cultural oasis in the middle of Manhattan.
"I can't tell you how many people came up to me between September of 2020 and September of 2021 and said the city just doesn't feel like it used to, except for Bryant Park," said Dan Biederman, executive director of Bryant Park, in an interview. "Crowds were a little smaller — they may not have noticed that but I did — but it played a major role in people feeling the city was still worth coming back to, that there were things to do when a lot of the concerts and obviously Broadway were still closed."
This year's series kicks off on May 27th when the New York City Opera stages a one-night-only, full-length, costumed production with orchestral accompaniment of Rossini's The Barber of Seville. The opera has three other major events planned for later in the season: its annual Pride in the Park concert takes place June 17th, and there will be fully-staged, dressed and live music-supported productions of Verdi's La traviata on August 12th and Donizetti and Cammarano's Lucia di Lammermoor on September 2nd.
Michael Capasso, the opera's general director, called Bryant Park the opera's summer home, and said getting to perform for people for free there fulfills the company's founding purpose.
"City Opera was founded as the people's opera — it was Fiorello LaGuardia, when he was mayor, he envisioned this company to be the opera for the people," Caprasso said. "For all the greatness of Central Park, any of the performing venues in Central Park require a trek into Central Park. But in Bryant Park, people can be strolling down a street, hear the [music], buy a glass of wine, and sit down for an hour and a half and watch an opera. That may not happen anywhere else. And that's what makes New York City the greatest city in the world."
According to Biederman, the park has come a long way in the 40-plus years since he first established the Bryant Park Corporation to help operate and re-envision the green space.
"It was a horrible park for a long time, and I came along in 1980, appointed by the [Rockefeller Brothers Fund], and we turned it into a well-run park that was attractive and fun and safe and clean," he said.
After several years of renovations, the park reopened in 1992. By then, it had been transformed into the well-manicured Bryant Park people think of today, and the annual concerts began the same year. "This was the renewal of Bryant Park," he added.
For Dan Fishman, the director of public events at Bryant Park, the accessibility of the park is one of its great advantages.
"You can come to Bryant Park through any transit line, it really is a subway ride away," he said. "A lot of our audience does not see theater, does not go to concerts. This is an audience that is not your usual subscriber to Carnegie Hall. We're handing out free picnic blankets, we have beer and wine for sale on the lawn. We have thousands of chairs for free, you basically show up and the experience can be [had]. There's no planning, there's no tickets, there's no lines, it really is meant to be as easy as possible a way to experience the best of New York City's arts."
In recent years, funding from Bank Of America has helped the park to expand the series and improve facilities, including an upgraded stage with better audio and lighting components. The park also launched its livestream program, and last summer, a quarter of a million people tuned in to the various events.
Among the highlights of this year's shows: Emerging Music Festival will showcase a mix of up-and-coming new indie rock, soul, and folk musicians on June 24 and 25th. There will be five evenings of dance in June curated by Tiffany Rea-Fisher, artistic director of EMERGE125 in Harlem. For two other weeks in June, the stage will be given over to dance companies — Jamel Gaines Creative Outlet and Alrick Thomas — to hold open rehearsals.
Carnegie Hall Citywide will present five consecutive Friday nights of music in July from the likes of Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble, The Baylor Project, Squirrel Nut Zippers and The Broadway Sinfonietta. Jazzmobile is bringing multiple-Grammy nominee and Latin Jazz legend Bobby Sanabria to the park on July 23rd.
Habibi Festival will be a one-night-only celebration of music from the Middle East and North Africa on August 26th. Asian American Arts Alliance will bring solo sets from Son Lux members Rafiq Bhatia and Ian Chang, who also worked on the soundtrack of Everything Everywhere All at Once, on August 19th. Steinway Artists jazz pianists Aaron Diehl and Orrin Evans will perform as a duo on September 8th. Global music night Accordion Festival will return with Heart of Afghanistan and more bands on September 16th. The Town Hall presents Grammy Award-winning sextet Eighth Blackbird playing the music of John Cage sometime on August 29th. And the season will close with a concert in partnership with American Symphony Orchestra celebrating their 60th anniversary.
No tickets are required, and Bryant Park will lend free picnic blankets to audience members on the lawn. Attendees are encouraged to bring their own food or purchase from local vendors. Vaccinations and masks are not required but are encouraged. You can get full details of all the shows and dates here.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated how long the Picnic Performances have been offered by Bryant Park.