In 1953 The Washington Square Music Festival began a series of summer concerts led by well-loved, virtuoso violinist, Alexander "Sasha" Schneider, of the Budapest String Quartet, and who fled to the US from the Nazis in 1938. Schneider loved his new home in New York and was an avid Greenwich Villager. His al fresco concerts were very popular, especially at a time with little or no air conditioning, so in 1956 The Washington Square Association Association successfully filed the concert series as a separate, not-for-profit entity. As we broadened our musical selections and began
to include diverse and international artists, we changed our name to the Washington Square Music Festival.
In the early days the Festival performed in front of the Alexander Lyman Holley statue and broadcast live by WNYC. Over the years, the series has become a valued downtown summer tradition, and is now the second-oldest free outdoor concert series in New York (the oldest is Naumburg Orchestral Concerts, which began in 1905).
Peggy Campbell with (L to R) Gerald Tarack,
concertmaster; unknown; Jack Glick, viola; Henry Schuman, oboe circa 1968
The first organizing force behind the festival was Margaret “Peggy” Campbell, a Villager since 1922. She served on the board of the Washington Square Association, and was chair of the Concert Commit-tee until her death in 1987. Renowned musicol-ogist Leonard Altman was personnel director. Laima Hood is currently festival committee chair, aided by Peggy Friedman, “Big” Peggy’s daughter. Peggy has served as executive director of the festival since 1978.
A 1989 interview with Henry Schuman, Artistic Director; Exec-utive Director Peggy Friedman; and performances by violinists Charles Stegeman and Ellen Payne; pianists James Rivers and Lois Anderson; conductors Paul Schwartz, Tali Makell and William McGlaughlin; and saxophonist Paul Cohen.
Robert Sherman, host of “In the Listening Room”
Marilyn Horne & Henry Lewis
The festival began an as a classical series, but we have always strived to widen the cultural base. For example, in 1963 we hired conductor Henry Lewis, a child prodigy bassist who performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at age sixteen, and who was having difficulty finding work in the US because of his African-American heritage. He conducted for several seasons, bringing with him an unknown
soprano, Marilyn Horne, who became a superstar and had a fantastic career. We got her first!he festival took a break for two years from 1969 to 1971 until a major park renovation was completed. During that time landscape architect and poet Robert Nichols, Music Director and oboist Henry Schuman, and Ms. Friedman, together with a committee of residents, designed a permanent stage near the 1888 statue of Italian activist, Giuseppe Garibaldi. In 2007 landscape architect George Vellonakis designed a second renovation enlarging the lawn space, and making the stage more integral to the surrounding area. It was completed in 2009.
In 2001 our Music Director, Henry Schuman, passed away, and our current artistic director, conductor and cellist Lutz Rath, took over. Under Mr. Rath’s leadership we have expanded our programming to include contemporary works, jazz, and world music as well as our repertoire of classical treasures. Lutz has surely captured the “Village” spirit with his unique contributions, including unique works for Indonesian gamelan and cello, and a Bach transcription for marimba and Chamber Orchestra.
We are presently entering our 62nd season of providing free, world-class music. Notably, since day one we have always paid the musicians at least union scale. Over the years we have had the honor of welcoming world-famous performers such as trumpeter and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, Wynton Marsalis (when he was only 17 yrs. old). Other noteworthy performers include Metropolitan Opera soprano Gabriella Tucci, conductor Alan Gilbert (NY Philharmonic Music Director) & Tania León, Cuban-born composer & conductor, clarinetist Stanley Drucker – 60 years with the NY Philharmonic, and the Charles Mingus Jazz Orchestra.
Over the years we have featured classical composers from the past – Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Bizet, Fauré; showcased contemporary ones – Arvo Pärt, Dizzy Gillespie and JP Jofre, and international groups including New York Taiko Aiko Kai, Johnny Colon and His Salsa Orchestra, The Stonewall Chorale, and Nepo Soteri & his Asante Band to name a few talented artists that have delighted our audiences over the years.
Although 2020 has marked our 62nd season, it is a virtual one because of COVID-19. With hope and hard work, we are looking forward to a future in which summers in Washington Square again offer the best of classical composers, and adventurous 21st century repertory, all performed by top-rate, critically acclaimed musicians. We feel that free music is a public right, not a “perk”, and we try to entertain, enlighten and educate our public. We also celebrate the ambiance of our historic park, and make it an inviting and convivial evening destination and making it true to the park’s original purpose.