Even before it was a park, Meridian Hill was the original Wolf Trap. As early as 1848, area newspapers were reporting concerts on the hill, then part of the countryside around Washington. When it was opened as a park in 1936, Meridian Hill became America’s first national park for the performing arts. Concerts featuring such prewar luminaries as Pearl Bailey and the von Trapp family were organized by eventual Wolf Trap grand dame Catherine Filene Shouse. The water in the park’s fountains would be turned off during concerts in favor of light glistening through dry-ice vapor. Planners of the day were aiming to move on to bigger and better things: The flat upper part of the park was originally designed by Frederick Law Olmstead Jr. to be a monumental concert hall.
But World War II put these plans, like so many others, on hold. After the war, as both people and federal dollars decamped to the suburbs, the park’s artistic importance dwindled. The National Symphony Orchestra last performed there in 1972, by which point many Washingtonians had already given up on the scary tract of land now known as Malcolm X Park. The past seven years, however, have featured something of a renaissance for park safety as well as park arts: Friends of Meridian Hill have staged over 200 concerts, most aimed at children, since 1990. And this weekend, the sounds of a professional orchestra will return to Malcolm X for the first time in a quarter century as the Washington Symphony Orchestra performs Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7, Bernstein’s Overture to Candide, and Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. According to Meridian Hill advocate Steve Coleman, the performance may be the first of many in the revived park: He says he’s also been talking with NSO about ending the orchestra’s 25-year absence.Michael Schaffer
The free performance, slated for Saturday, July 19 at 7:00 p.m. next to the park’s reflecting pool, is titled “An Evening of Heroes,” and honors the families of slain police officers.