May 2005 Issue
In scenic outdoor settings, summer music festivals appeal to tastes ranging from classical to country to rock and rap.
Amy S. Eckert
Michiganians know that summer will be a long time coming. Much as they complain, they know their gripes will not reduce the heavy snowfall, nor the bitter Great Lakes winds. And although March and April tease them every year, they know that they can't really count on spring until May. So when summer finally arrives, you can be sure they will spend every possible moment outdoors.
When You Go...
For concert schedules, ticket prices and exact locations, contact Michigan's outdoor concert venues directly:
Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, Summer Concert Series, 1000 E. Beltline NE, Grand Rapids, 888/957-1580. www.meijergardens.org
Grand Rapids Symphony Picnic Pops, Cannonsburg Ski Area, Cannonsburg Rd., Grand Rapids, 616/454-9451. www.grsymphony.org
Interlochen Center for the Arts, Summer Arts Festival, 4000 M-137, Interlochen, 800/681-5920. www.interlochen.org
Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp, Summer Arts Festival, 300 E. Crystal Lake Rd., Twin Lake, 800/221-3796. www.bluelake.org
DTE Energy Music Theatre, 7774 Sashabaw Rd., Clarkston, 248/377-0100. www.palacenet.com
Meadow Brook Music Festival, 3554 Walton Blvd., Rochester Hills, 248/377-0100. www.palacenet.com
Perhaps that's the reason Michigan has such a wealth of summer outdoor concert series. Visitors from throughout the country have learned that there's plenty to attract them as well. Warm summer evenings, lakeside vistas and towering pine trees are just part of the charm. All six of Michigan's outdoor concert venues take their music very seriously, featuring nationally and internationally recognized performers.
There are, of course, a few risks in attending outdoor concerts. With the exception of severely inclement weather, the show will go on as scheduled, rain or shine. But families are happy to pack umbrellas and rain ponchos. Lawn seating in outdoor music venues, with few exceptions, allows youngsters the space to run around if they become restless and the freedom to make a little noise if they can't resist.
From Interlochen, in the Lower Peninsula's northernmost reaches, to metropolitan Detroit, from the idyllic lakeside setting of Blue Lake to the suburban atmosphere of Meadow Brook, Michiganians and visitors love to celebrate the summer with great music. Join in the fun. After all, winter will return all too soon.
Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, Grand Rapids
The setting alone might be enough to draw crowds to Frederik Meijer Gardens' outdoor concerts on a balmy summer evening. The almond-shaped amphi-theater sits at the lower end of a terraced, grassy slope, bordering one of the finest sculpture parks in the Midwest. The park's most famous artwork, the 24-foot-high bronze "American Horse," created by contemporary sculptor Nina Akamu and based on drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, is visible from the amphitheater, as are other sculptures. Lush perennial beds and ornamental trees and grasses add to the appeal. And if the sky is clear, you might also enjoy a blazing sunset.
This year marks the third season of summer concerts at the Meijer Gardens, which is fast earning a reputation for scheduling some of the finest and most diverse headliners in the state. Previous years have included performances by B. B. King, Art Garfunkle, Ricky Skaggs, the Indigo Girls and John Prine.
As with any outdoor concert, music events at the Meijer Gardens are casual. Families are well-represented among the attendees, and it's not uncommon for folks to get up for food or restroom breaks during the show. However, there's little room for very young children to run around. And given the high profile of some of the featured artists, your fellow concert-goers will not take kindly to too many interruptions.
Seating is general admission lawn. Bring along a blanket or low-rise folding beach chair. Sandwiches, snacks and beverages are sold on-site, but many people bring along a picnic basket and eat dinner before or during the concert. Alcoholic beverages may not be brought in but are sold on location.
Grand Rapids Symphony Picnic Pops, Cannonsburg
In the middle of winter, the slopes of Cannonsburg Ski Area are ribboned with the tracks of downhill ski buffs. But in the height of summer, when snow is a distant memory, families head to Cannonsburg for a very different kind of activity: picnic and a concert.
In the summer months, the Grand Rapids Symphony leaves its elegant setting in downtown Grand Rapids' DeVos Hall for eight concerts in Cannonsburg, northeast of the city, where the setting and the musical repertoire are distinctly casual. In fact, Picnic Pops is the most casual outdoor concert venue in Michigan. Families spread blankets and lawn chairs over the grassy slope and enjoy a picnic dinner during the concert. Conversations are not frowned upon. Fidgety children are expected. (If they can't sit still, just head for a wide-open space and let them run around.) This is not your typical classical music concert; it's an opportunity to introduce live music to children in a fun atmosphere.
And it's an opportunity for adults to enjoy a summer evening outdoors. Orchestral and popular music are the chief draws (this season, expect light classical with a fireworks finale, swing music with Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and Motown with The Miracles and Ben E. King). But don't underestimate the appeal of a picnic dinner. Casual fare such as sandwiches and soda are most commonly drawn out of family picnic baskets. But you might also see couples dining on French baguettes, seafood salad, cantaloupe, and a bottle of wine.
Grilled items and soft drinks are sold at Cannonsburg if you don't want to pack a picnic. Alcoholic beverages are permitted but are not sold on-site. Reserved table seating is available, but most attendees opt for the cheaper, general admission lawn seating. Family lawn passes are a good value if you're attending with two or more children. Gates open approximately two hours before concert time for picnicking, preconcert music and organized children's activities.
Interlochen Fine Arts Camp, Interlochen
One of the nation's premier fine arts camps, Interlochen is home to natural beauty that is tough to beat. Taking its name from the nearby state park and bordered by two lakes, Green Lake and Duck Lake, Interlochen is the epitome of a summer camp. Small, brown cabins lie scattered throughout the sprawling, forested campus, where young proteges expand their knowledge of song, dance, instrumental music, the visual arts, theater and creative writing. Students come from across the nation and the world, all eager for an opportunity to learn under the tutelage of some of the nation's most gifted artists. And Interlochen's idyllic setting seems to add inspiration.
If your family is making the trip to Interlochen for a summer concert performance, you'd be well-advised to arrive in the early afternoon for an opportunity to view the young artists at work and play. Virtually every building on campus is open to the public, and most practice rooms have viewing areas. Step inside an instructional building to view ballet rehearsals or students spinning clay pots; inside others are band or piano recitals, faculty recitals or art exhibitions. To learn what may be going on during your stay, just stop inside the Information Center at the camp's main entrance.
Interlochen has more than one concert venue, but Kresge Auditorium is its outdoor stage. In truth, the stage and its seating area are enclosed by a roof and partial walls, providing welcome protection from the thunderstorms and chilly evenings common in northern Michigan. But the structure's walls disappear as they approach the stage, offering views of Green Lake's shore and allowing a cool breeze and bright sunlight.
Interlochen is known for its first-rate classical and jazz programs, but the venue is a favorite among performers from all musical backgrounds. The approaching season promises such diverse entertainers as the Sousa Band, Steve Winwood, Kathy Mattea, Arlo Guthrie and Aretha Franklin.
Admission to most Kresge Auditorium concerts is by reserved seating. Lodging is available in modest family cabins and hotel rooms at Interlochen and in nearby Traverse City. Before select Kresge shows, a Prelude Picnic offers pizza, salads, sandwiches and beverages for purchase, and there are several designated picnic areas on campus. There is no dining inside the auditorium.
Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp, Twin Lake
Like Interlochen, Blue Lake is, first and foremost, a fine arts camp, dedicated to developing the skills of young people interested in music, art, dance and theater. And like Interlochen, Blue Lake can boast an idyllic setting in which to instruct its campers: the cool shade of Manistee National Forest, the beauty of Little Blue Lake, the characteristic brown, wooden cabins inhabited by uniformed school-age children.
The William Stewart Memorial Music Shell matches the remainder of Blue Lake's cabins, its arching, brown, wooden roof resembling a walnut shell over the stage and the first two dozen rows of seats. The amphitheater sits near the bottom of a grass-covered slope that leads to Little Blue Lake, visible just beyond the concert shell. And while there is an ample supply of wooden bench seats, many attendees take along folding chairs and strollers or wagons for the kids. Broad grassy areas beyond the seating area give restless kids the space to run around a bit.
Blue Lake's musical repertoire is classical and orchestral. Previous performers have included the United States Army Field Band and Soldiers' Chorus, the Grand Rapids Symphony and Blue Lake's own festival orchestra, band and ballet ensemble. The concerts are also the least expensive in the state, costing no more than $5 per person; some performances are free.
While the concerts are always a treat, part of the entertainment for many adults at Blue Lake is the participation of the campers. Young people from throughout the state and the nation fill the front rows of the audience at Blue Lake, all dressed in a uniform of light blue polo shirt and navy skirt, pants or shorts, all polite, respectful, and excited. Their enthusiasm for the arts is refreshing and inspiring. When was the last time you attended a classical music concert where most of the attendees hadn't yet hit puberty? Have you ever heard a bunch of kids whistle and whoop with glee for an operatic number? You'll hear it at Blue Lake, and it will give you hope.
Seating at William Stewart Memorial Music Shell is general admission on bench seats. Tickets, when required, are sold at the door. Lawn chairs are permissible but not necessary. Lodging and dining are available in nearby Muskegon. There are numerous picnic areas throughout the camp, but no food service.
DTE Energy Music Theatre, Clarkston
Formerly known as Pine Knob, DTE Energy Music Theatre is the polar opposite of a quiet outdoor venue such as Blue Lake. Since 1991 the theater has garnered honors as either the nation's busiest or top-grossing amphitheater every year.
DTE Energy Music Theatre is big: More than 15,000 patrons can be seated in metro Detroit's favorite outdoor amphitheater. And it is very busy: Approximately 80 events are hosted here every year, a remarkable feat for a stage that is only open from mid-May to mid-September.
At least part of the theater's appeal is its outdoor location. There's something thrilling about listening to your favorite rock, rap or country music out in the fresh air, nibbling on picnic food, remembering to appreciate Michigan's fleeting warm weather months. But while the green grassy lawn area and clear blue summer skies are appealing, nature is secondary at DTE Energy Music Theater. The music is everything here, the venue's consistent line-up of first-rate performers drawing thousands from throughout the Midwest and the country. Internationally recognized headline acts are the rule, including performers as diverse as Reba McEntire, Chicago, Fleetwood Mac, Motley Crue and 50 Cent.
Seating at DTE Energy Music Theatre is in both reserved sections and general admission lawn. Bring along a blanket or low-rise folding beach chair. Picnic baskets with food may be brought into the theater but no beverages of any kind. Strollers and wagons are not permitted.
Meadow Brook, Rochester Hills
Meadow Brook Music Festival is owned and operated by the same organization that manages DTE Energy Music Theater. The amphitheater sits on the grounds of Oakland University in the northwestern Detroit suburb of Rochester Hills. Because the university makes use of the amphitheater, Meadow Brook has a shorter calendar of events, limited to about 40 events each season, beginning in mid-June.
Meadow Brook seats about half the patrons that its Clarkston counterpart does, most of whom opt for lawn seating. And, like DTE Energy Music Theater, the grounds and promise of fresh air on a Michigan summer evening draw its share of fans.
But it is, in the end, the music that fills Meadow Brook's 7,500 seats. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra leaves its grand home in the Max Fisher Music Center in downtown Detroit to perform six concerts at Meadow Brook during July and August, including a Tchaikovsky spectacular with fireworks, an evening of Gershwin favorites and a collaboration of the orchestra and the cast of "Beatlemania." Other headline acts on the schedule are folk singer Ani DiFranco, singer-songwriter Jack Johnson and the British rock group Oasis.
Seating at Meadow Brook is in both reserved sections and general admission lawn. Bring along a blanket or low-rise folding beach chair. Picnic baskets with food may be brought into the theater, but no beverages of any kind. Strollers and wagons are not permitted.