Fort Worth summer concert series celebrates a milestone

Concerts in the Garden, the series of performances presented by the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra amid the lush greenery of the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, turns 20 this summer. And the orchestra is celebrating that milestone with an expanded season that promises to have something for everybody.

"I think this is the most diversified season we've had," says symphony President Ann Koonsman about the slate of concerts that will begin a week earlier this year. Seventeen shows will be offered over 19 weekend nights, concluding with what is typically the most popular show in the series, the Old Fashioned Family Fireworks Picnic concert July 2-4.

Between now and then, however, the Botanic Garden is going to look and sound like a branch of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The concerts will include tribute bands or soloists performing the music of Queen, the Beatles, Patsy Cline and the Eagles, as well as perennial favorite Craig Parker channeling Elvis Presley. And there will be separate nights devoted to music of the '80s and Woodstock.

Indeed, so many nights will be taken by visiting artists and ensembles that the full symphony will be playing in only seven of the season's shows, often backing one of the tribute acts. So just two -- the 1812 Overture and the final concert -- feature anything approaching classical music.

The absence of the symphony and its usual repertoire is due partially to scheduling issues. Many players are performing with the Fort Worth Opera during its festival and some are committed to the PianoTexas International Academy and Festival at Texas Christian University, beginning June 4.

Audiences have indicated that they prefer lighter fare in the warmer months.

"We used to do Thursday nights devoted to classical music," says Koonsman, who was inspired to start this outdoor series after an idyllic evening at Chicago's Ravinia Music Festival. "But we did a lot of analysis and we determined there was not a great demand for the product. And it is difficult to put an orchestra on stage outside."

Garden audiences do seem to love the tribute bands and other shows -- just as the musicians seem to love playing them.

"The show I am most looking forward to playing is the Classical Mystery Tour, the Beatles show," says Preston Thomas, the principal percussionist for the symphony who has played almost all of the garden concerts involving the orchestra. "Because I think they look and sound so much like them. And their arrangements are note for note exactly like those albums."

The Botanic Garden does present some challenges for Thomas.

"I have to get there an hour and a half or two hours early to put it all together," he says, adding that once the instruments are set up, they often require constant tweaking because factors such as humidity can change the tuning of his drums.

And working with the tribute bands, which often includes a traditional rock drum set, requires some unusual approaches.

"Since the drums are miked, I ask for a monitor [speaker] back here, so we can hear exactly what is going on," says Preston, who has been with the symphony for 37 years. "What the rhythm section is doing is really the most important thing to me, especially outdoors. I don't care so much about what the singer is doing. I've got to know where the pulse is so we are not behind."

But despite the hassles of early setups, a dense rehearsal and performance schedule and our relentless summer heat, Thomas said he and his fellow musicians enjoy their nights in the garden.

"I can't remember ever having a bad show. It's a very pleasant, very professional type of situation for us," Thomas explains. "It's so much fun to watch the crowd having a good time."

And while keeping the music flowing for 20 seasons of concerts under the stars may seem an impressive achievement, Koonsman is not taking as much credit as some might think she deserves.

"I can claim ownership in the early days," says Koonsman, who is effusive in her praise of the event's sponsors. "But now this is not Ann's project. This belongs to the whole city of Fort Worth."