LAKE FOREST — Children were playing catch, rolling down hillsides and jumping to pop bubbles. Adults nearby watched and chatted quietly.
It was just another normal summer evening in the park, except for that live symphony orchestra in the corner playing show tunes and waltzes.
Such was the scene for some 3,000 attendees at Sunday's third and final presentation of "Symphony in the Cities," the outdoor concert series by the Costa Mesa-based Pacific Symphony and its music director of 20 years, Carl St. Clair.
The show at Pittsford Park in Lake Forest was the kind of symphony you could bring your dog to — and many did.
With its program of easy listening — including show tunes from "My Fair Lady," "Annie Get Your Gun" and Strauss standards like "On the Beautiful Blue Danube" — the setting was relaxed as any program I've ever been to, inside or outside.
I've heard many an outdoor orchestra concert — from the Boston Pops within earshot of the Martha's Vineyard ferries to the San Diego Symphony within a long baseball throw of Petco Park — and yet that night was the most easygoing and age-friendly show of them all.
Hollywood's musical mark surely had more than a few concertgoers thinking which movie used which tunes. Conductor St. Clair's explanations before their performances were most welcome.
Although I don't think St. Clair mentioned it, I had to wonder what Strauss would think of his music, written then for the Viennese rich of the mid-1800s, that is so richly performed today for swans in "Looney Tunes" or astronauts in "2001: A Space Odyssey."
Sunday was the series' fifth year in Lake Forest.
Furthermore, the concert came at an amazing price: It was free. The orchestra has been offering free outdoor concerts since 1999 with the help of various sponsors. But this year, Sunday's show came thanks to grants and partnerships of the Pacific Symphony with Target and the city of Lake Forest.
"Without one of the three, it really wouldn't work," Susan Miller told me before the concert. "It's really a three-legged stool."
Miller works for the symphony in its education and community programs. As we talked before the orchestra took the stage, those programs were happening around us in the makeshift zone dubbed the "Musical Playground."
This little midway of music had kids making tambourines, drumming together in circles, hearing symphony musicians play up close and trying out instruments in the "Instrument Petting Zoo."
Bernadette Ceman, a soon-to-be junior at El Toro High School, was helping little ones hold and produce a sound on the flute. She looked like she was having fun recruiting a few burgeoning musicians for the future ranks of flutists.
"Playing flute is harder than it looks," she said. "People don't know that."
Anyone produce any notes? "Some!"
Practice makes perfect.
Four-year-old Bayani Reed of Lake Forest tried his skills with Ceman on the flute and also the trumpet. His dad watched, photographing the scene with his camera phone as Zack Zibits, who goes to Poly High in Long Beach, held up a trumpet for Reed to buzz in. There was no music that moment, but even Miles Davis started somewhere.
Mission Viejo's Katerina Stein, 4, looked sharp holding the violin. Though mom admitted she might've gotten just a little bit from dad, Rudy Stein, who happens to play cello for the Pacific Symphony.
Ending the playground fun time was Conducting 101 with St. Clair, whose assistants passed out batons to the future bandleaders of Orange County. Substituting for the standard wood or fiberglass sticks were multicolored straws equally capable of helping the orchestra keep the beat. An assistant beforehand asked the kids to name the varied pieces of wood and metal that make up an orchestra. My favorite response: "The big, fat drums!" "Those are timpani!"
Then St. Clair enthusiastically came into his class.
"Hold up your right hand," he proclaimed.
Up they went.
"Hold your baton in your right hand."
Right hands were now equipped.
"Up ... down," St. Clair motioned.
Up and down they went. Nice and slow.
But a bit too slow.
"Actually, the piece you're going to conduct goes about twice as fast as that," St. Clair announced. "Do you think you can do it?"
The group laughed at the sudden realization of tempo.
But the test came soon, as St. Clair's assistant played Strauss' "Thunder and Lightning" polka on a boombox. Up and down the straws went beneath the cloudless SoCal evening skies to music celebrating stormy weather. St. Clair led the group bouncing his pink straw up and down to the 19th-century beat.
St. Clair's students held on to their batons for the remainder of the evening until it was their big shot. The conductor motioned the children and accompanying parents to the front and center stage. They got ready.
Then off they went, a sea of straws amidst a flurry of notes from above. Some children, resting on the shoulders of dads, conducted and looked at the lit stage with bright enthusiasm, just trying to take it all in.
After their musical successes, St. Clair said the kids were lucky to hear a live orchestra at such a young age. The maestro, who grew up in as small a Texas town as they get, didn't hear an ensemble like the ones he would conduct until age 17.
Indeed, they were lucky.
BRADLEY ZINT is a copy editor for the Daily Pilot and a classically trained musician. E-mail him story ideas at email@example.com.