The storm fencing had been circling Ocean Park for days. No Parking signs had seemed to breed in the seaside streets of Oak Bluffs. By Sunday, cops and volunteers in yellow T-shirts also appeared to have multiplied, and then came the music-lovers (at least for the day), by the thousands, bearing folding chairs and friends from out of town, kids and coolers jammed with sandwiches, gourmet salads and chilled bottles of Sauvingnon blanc. They brought blankets, they brought books - a little Harry Potter to catch up on while waiting for the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra to take the towering stage that somehow seemed entirely at home in the town centered around tiny gingerbread cottages.
There were porch parties at those lucky houses lining the park, teasing passersby with the smell of barbecues. Some folks set up family picnics on grass that would have been labeled "obstructed view" if this were a symphony hall; they were outside the fence, to be sure, but it was free. Inside, kids old and young played whiffle ball and tag, making new friends behind the backs of the spreading audience that threatened to overtake their patch of back-row grass. All the while, schmoozing sustained those in the hospitality tent closer to the stage. Laughter carried on the sea breeze, and anticipation too.
A woman at the Will Call window had in her hands two pizzas - and two extra kids' tickets, which she gave away, refusing payment. "It's too perfect a night," she said. By the end of the evening that inaugurated the annual Martha's Vineyard Festival - next year's date already has been set for Sunday, August 10 - few would have disagreed with her.
It began, appropriately enough for this sprawling open-air event, with the Prelude to Ben Hur. This was the Pops, the lighter side of the symphony, playing its new Oscar and Tony program of familiar sound tracks and show tunes. Two giant screens on either side of the spectacular stage sprang to life with giant sweaty Charlton Hestons,
This was, after all, a no-jackets-required gig, even for conductor Keith Lockhart. In body-tugging black pants and a black shirt unbuttoned at the top, the boyish-looking Mr. Lockhart used his familiar flamboyance for the role of emcee as well as conductor. Telling the crowd about putting together the initial play list for the orchestra's Oscar and Tony compact disc, he said it was marvellous. Long pause for effect. "And it was seventeen and a half hours long," he smiled. The pruned, polished and freshly pressed album, he noted, was on sale at the merchandise tent. "And they make great Christmas gifts," he reminded the audience incongruously enjoying a perfect summer evening.
The sometimes-intimidating etiquette of orchestral music was as far away as Christmas on this night. In symphony halls, patrons are advised not to applaud in between movements and to consult the program if unsure when a song had finished; here, there was no program, only posters and T-shirts to buy, the songs were largely pop-length, and Mr. Lockhart put his players through a workout, urging them to rise after each tune, for every round of applause.
The sun was an orange smear low across the August sky by the time legendary saxophonist Branford Marsalis came on stage, dazzling in his bright white jacket, charming in his repartee and magnificent in his playing. He apologized for coming on late. "I forgot my music at home," he said, adding that so many people were in town that weekend, he had to stay 20 minutes away from Oak Bluffs. His set was smooth. After the concert's play list had been set, Mr. Marsalis said, the organizers said they had four minutes to fill, did he want to play some jazz? "How do you play jazz in four minutes?" Mr. Marsalis laughed. "So I'll play you a standard." As he played The More I See You, his touch had a mellow power; couples' fingers seemed magically drawn together, lovingly interlinked, as he played.
Intermission saw a few children crack glow sticks as the dark descended over their playground. When the bluesy strains of Chicago began, the horns wailing All That Jazz were like siren calls, drawing most kids (some were reluctantly assisted, or lured with snacks) back to their parents' blankets to look at the stars, in the sky and on the stage.
Natalie Cole's entrance in a flowing gown drew cheers, whistles and applause. There was an audible crowd sigh when the screens lit up with her father, Nat King Cole's image, and in a marvel of technical production, the orchestra and Natalie played live and in sync with Nat's beloved voice on recording, a father-daughter duet of Unforgettable. The screen flashed photos of Natalie as a child, in her father's arms as a baby, at her own microphone as she grew. It was hard to know which to watch, the screen or the stage.
Mr. Marsalis returned for some of Ms. Cole's set, and for the performance that Mr. Lockhart had been promising, the special guests. Kate Taylor, Carly Simon and Ms. Taylor's daughter Liz Witham joined in harmony for the Patti Page favorite Old Cape Cod. As they trilled the chill-out lyrics, "If you spend an evening, you'll want to stay, Watching the moonlight on Cape Cod Bay, You're sure to fall in love with old Cape Cod," the words were especially apt.
At last the stage lights, maneuvered from huge scaffolding platforms at the side of the park, turned on the red, white and blue. The American flag unfurled on stage and the band struck up Sousa's Stars and Stripes Forever, a salute to a perfect evening.
Festival organizers said that more than 4,000 people attended; proceeds from the event for the Martha's Vineyard Hospital had yet to be tallied.