Thousands of people made their way to the Great Lawn of Central Park on Saturday afternoon, flashed their proof of vaccination and took their places on the grass for an all-star concert — with a lineup including Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon and Jennifer Hudson — to celebrate the reopening of New York City after more than a year of pandemic hardship and shutdowns.
Moments before the show began at 5 p.m., the clouds in the sky parted and beams of sunlight doused the park, bringing exclamations of joy from the crowd. Gayle King, a co-host of “CBS This Morning,” began the evening by thanking the essential workers who had pulled the city through the darkest days of the pandemic.
“We were once the epicenter of this virus, and now we’ve moved to being the epicenter of the recovery,” she said. “We gather for a common purpose: to say, ‘Welcome back, New York City!’”
She then introduced the New York Philharmonic, which kicked off the concert with the overture to Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide,” conducted by Marin Alsop, a Bernstein protégée. The orchestra then played a medley of New York-themed music, including bits of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” and “Theme from ‘New York, New York,’” the anthem made famous by Frank Sinatra, among others.
The concert, “We Love NYC: The Homecoming Concert,” which was being broadcast live on CNN, was part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plans to celebrate the city’s emergence from the pandemic. The lineup was set to feature Elvis Costello, Carlos Santana, Maluma, the Killers, Patti Smith, Journey, Kane Brown, LL Cool J, and Earth, Wind and Fire, among others.
When the concert was announced by Mr. de Blasio in June, plunging coronavirus case numbers and rising vaccination figures had filled the city with hope.
But circumstances have shifted considerably over the past two months. The spread of the highly contagious Delta variant has led some city businesses to postpone the return to their offices, prompted the city to institute vaccine mandates for indoor dining and entertainment and threatened to destabilize the wider concert business.
On June 7, the day the concert was announced, the city was averaging 242 cases a day; the daily average is now more than 2,000 cases a day.
With the Philharmonic still onstage, the concert continued with Andrea Bocelli, the star Italian tenor, singing “O Sole Mio,” and Jennifer Hudson, the star of the new Aretha Franklin biopic “Respect,” singing Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” — a beloved aria that became associated with Franklin after she sang it at the Grammy Awards in 1998.
As the crowd streamed in, the idea of New York’s return — whether a two-fisted vanquishing of a viral enemy or a premature declaration of victory — was on seemingly everyone’s mind.
“This is our reopening — this is our invitation to get back to real life,” said Dean Dunagan, 52, of the Lower East Side, who had come to see Mr. Springsteen and had been waiting outside the park for four and a half hours before the gates were opened.
“New York has been punched in the face every other decade, or whatever,” Mr. Dunagan said, “and we get right back up.”
Just a few feet from him was Alexandra Gudaitis, a 24-year-old Paul Simon fan from the Upper West Side. “I’m scared this is going to be a mass spreader event, with the Delta,” she said.
Still, she was one of the first fans through the door and rushed to the very front of the general-admission section with a few friends. They wore masks, and Ms. Gudaitis said they had chosen their spot because it seemed to have better access to fresh air.
Some of the acts had only tenuous connections to New York. But the rap pioneer LL Cool J led a New York-centric ode to old-school hip-hop with Busta Rhymes, A Boogie Wit da Hoodie, French Montana, Melle Mel and Rev. Run of Run-DMC.
The homecoming show required everyone 12 years old and up to show proof that they had had at least one dose of a vaccine; children younger than that, who are still ineligible for the vaccines, were required to wear masks.
“When it comes to the concerts, they are outdoors — they are for vaccinated folks only,” the mayor said on Wednesday. “We are definitely encouraging mask use. But I really want to emphasize the whole key here is vaccination.”
The Central Park show came after the city had hosted a week of free hip-hop shows, with local heroes including Raekwon and Ghostface Killah in Staten Island, and KRS-One, Kool Moe Dee and Slick Rick in the Bronx. Tickets were required to attend the concert on the Great Lawn — most were free, but V.I.P. packages cost up to $5,000 — and the show was broadcast on television by CNN and on satellite radio by SiriusXM.
The concert was programmed by Clive Davis, the 89-year-old music eminence, who, in an interview this week, stressed the role that music could play in shaping society.
“It’s vital and important that New York be back,” he said.
Sounding invigorated, Mr. Davis described some of the last-minute work that had gone into putting together the show — which, in some ways, was a giant version of his annual pre-Grammy parties, where stars, often in combinations, perform for an elite music industry crowd.
“I still love music as much as ever,” he said.
To some extent, the lineup reflects Mr. Davis’s own career in music.
After joining Columbia Records as a lawyer in 1960 — with no relevant experience in music — he rose through the ranks to become the company’s president in 1967 and quickly pushed the label to sign more rock acts. Later, at the Arista and J labels, he worked with R&B-leaning pop divas like Whitney Houston, seized on the commercial potential of hip-hop and engineered successful comebacks for a series of stars, such as Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin and Mr. Santana, and grew close to Mr. Simon.
Mr. Davis said that he had been contacted by Mr. de Blasio in May about putting together the show and that his first call had been to Mr. Springsteen.
“I picked up the phone and told him we were going to celebrate New York City,” Mr. Davis recalled. “He said he would show up and wanted to do a duet.” That duet will be with Patti Smith, on “Because the Night,” a 1978 song they wrote together.
It is an uncertain moment for the music industry. While some high-profile artists, including Garth Brooks, BTS and Nine Inch Nails, have canceled tour dates recently, the show is largely going on in the live-music business — but it hasn’t been easy. Concert protocols, in New York and elsewhere, have been in flux for months, as the federal authorities, local governments and businesses have adjusted to the changing realities of the virus.
Broadway is requiring masks and proof of vaccinations as its theaters reopen, and Los Angeles County recently announced that it would require masks at large outdoor events such as baseball games at Dodger Stadium and concerts at the Hollywood Bowl.
Mr. de Blasio has defended going ahead with the concert, noting that it was being held outdoors and for vaccinated people, even as some other events have been canceled. This year’s West Indian American Day parade in Brooklyn, for example, planned for Labor Day Weekend, has been canceled.
The eyes of the concert industry have been on Chicago, where the Lollapalooza festival drew 400,000 over four days in late July and early August, amid concerns that it could turn into a “superspreader” event. The festival, which was held outdoors, required that attendees show proof of vaccination or a negative test. Last week, the city said that 203 people attending the show had tested positive afterward and that no hospitalizations or deaths had been reported.
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