Symphony in the Square 2023

Symphony in the Square 2023

By Rudy Howell

Walt Disney famously said, “If you can dream it, you can do it.”

It was this kind of mentality which helped turn the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s Symphony in the Square, Sponsored by Station Lands or ‘SITS’ into one of the most attended events of our organization’s 72-year history.

Two free performances of Disney in Concert: A Dream is a Wish were held in downtown Edmonton’s Sir Winston Churchill Square over the Labour Day weekend of September 1st and 2nd, 2023.

Symphony in the Square 2023. Photo by Levi Manchak.

“As a born and raised Edmontonian, it was a huge pleasure to see the city I grew up in join together to enjoy the outdoors and the beautiful music of Disney. I believe that by performing these summer concerts in the square, we bring the joy of music to those in our community who may not necessarily be able to attend concerts during our indoor season,” said Martin Bui, Principal Percussionist, ESO.

The unique event paired well-known Disney soundtracks as performed live by the ESO and featured vocalists with corresponding film clips played on a massive screen behind the orchestra. Both concerts were conducted by Robert Bernhardt and featured 64 musicians, four vocalists, and two separate pyrotechnic displays.

From left to right, featured vocalists Terron Brooks, Deidre Donovan, Aaron Phillips, and Stephanie Burkett Gerson perform at SITS on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023. Photo by Levi Manchak.

“This year’s SITS is one of the highlights of my career. We worked for months to prepare for these concerts and feeling the buzz of the crowd throughout the night, capped with the surprise of the pyro display, made every ounce of effort worth it. Seeing the excitement of my own young family on Saturday night was the perfect cherry on top,” said Sarah Jacques, Production Manager, ESO.

The ESO knew the event would be popular; the question was, how popular? After all, the last time we held a concert in Churchill Square was in 2016 for Symphony in the City. Much has changed in Edmonton’s downtown core since then.

Past Symphony in the City performance. Photo by Ed Ellis.

Perhaps a sign of what was to come was the fact that some concertgoers arrived as early as 11 a.m. to claim their spot in the square as our staff continued to set up for night one on Friday, September 1st. The orchestra would not perform until 7 p.m. that evening.

By late afternoon, a steady flow of people began to trickle into Churchill Square from all four corners. Staff watched as tens turned into hundreds between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. and hundreds turned into thousands between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Crowds gathering for SITS on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023. Photo by Levi Manchak.

“Watching the square fill up was exhilarating. We created an experience that will live on in the memories and the hearts of the audience - seeing their favourite Disney music performed by a fabulous orchestra with some amazing singers,” said Jacques.

Wave after wave of everyone from Disney superfans to curious onlookers continued to shuffle into the square even after the ESO had launched into its first arrangement: The Little Mermaid Orchestral Suite. As if by a touch of Disney magic, Churchill Square was transformed into a colourful sea of life.

At the peak of the evening, 13,000 people had packed into Churchill Square. The next night, this number grew to 15,000. In total, approximately 28,000 people attended SITS, far surpassing our initial attendance estimates of 10,000 people per performance.

SITS as seen from the City Hall clock tower on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023. Photo by Levi Manchak.

“I was so happy to be partnered with the Edmonton Symphony when I saw all those young families with kids dressed up in their Frozen costumes. Safety and security can be achieved in a lot of ways, but vibrancy at its core is a great way to do it because there is strength in numbers,” said Mike Saunders, Senior Vice President of Qualico Properties/Station Lands.

It was the largest number of people the ESO has hosted downtown since 2016 and among the busiest events held in Churchill Square since the pandemic changed the face of our once vibrant Arts District.

It is no secret that our downtown looks and feels different these days. The past three and half years have witnessed a substantial decrease in business, arts, and cultural activities and a correlated increase in unsheltered populations. However, through events like SITS, our community is collaboratively bringing vibrancy back to our downtown core and Arts District.

“It was so uplifting to see families come together in the heart of our city and enjoy a beautiful experience. People are truly the lifeblood of the downtown, and it was wonderful to see it thriving for this incredible event. I hope this continues to be a tradition and that it grows from strength to strength each season. A huge thank you to the Winspear and all of their supporters who made this exceptional community-building event possible,” said Anne Stevenson, Edmonton City Councillor, Ward O-day’min.

The overwhelming success of SITS proved that Edmontonians still can and want to utilize their downtown core as a gathering place for friends and families – for community. To see people of all backgrounds come together in the heart of our city was a beautiful reminder that we are stronger together than apart and share more commonalities than differences.

Family enjoying SITS on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023. Photo by Levi Manchak.

“The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s Disney concerts in Churchill Square were a safe, well-organized, and fun event enjoyed by thousands of Edmontonians. Events like this help to transform our downtown from a place where people come to work, to a vibrant space where people can enjoy themselves and all that downtown has to offer,” said Sgt. Sean Parker of the Edmonton Police Service.

The fact that SITS was a free event further enhanced the inclusiveness of the weekend as it introduced the ESO to new audiences who may not attend regular ESO performances at the Winspear. Our post-concert survey indicated that 38% of respondents had never seen the ESO perform before attending SITS.

Of course, making this event free was only possible thanks to the generous support of our title sponsor, Station Lands, as well as EPCOR, the Edmonton Downtown Business Association, and all three levels of government, including the City of Edmonton and Alberta Culture Days. On September 1st, we were pleased to have the Honourable Tanya Fir, Minister of Arts, Culture and Status of Women present to kick off Alberta Culture Days at the first performance.

Honourable Tanya Fir, Minister of Arts, Culture and Status of Women at SITS on Friday, Sept. 1, 2023. Photo by Levi Manchak.

Looking out at the crowd from the stage provided the clearest view of what our community accomplished: complete harmony through music. We all know and love the classic Disney soundtracks and can associate them with certain points in our lives – often childhood. This was best evidenced by the enormous roar of the crowd each night when The Lion King came on the screen.

Conductor Robert Bernhardt and the ESO perform at SITS on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023. Photo by Levi Manchak.

“I could tell the concerts brought nostalgia to seasoned Disney fans, and for younger fans who sang along, it provided a special opportunity to have the magic come alive right in front of their eyes. People were so happy to finally be together again in this extravagant way. So many faces were lit up with joy, and it was all free. Edmonton gave me a personal memory that will last forever,” said Terron Brooks, Vocalist, Disney Concerts.

From Cinderella to Frozen, different languages could be heard singing along to the orchestra throughout the square. Some laughed and danced while others cried and embraced. For two magical nights, the ESO turned Churchill Square into a destination to let your guard down, enjoy the moment, and be a kid again.

In true Disney fashion, each night was brought to a close with a magnificent pyrotechnic display above Churchill Square as the orchestra played “Into the Unknown” from Frozen 2. Cheers could be heard far and wide as those who left early came rushing back into the square to see the colourful finale.

A pyrotechnic display marks the SITS finale on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023. Photo by Levi Manchak.

“It was an honour and a privilege to be part of such a special night with Symphony in the Square, bringing so many folks together in the downtown area after so long. Music is magical, and you could feel the energy in the air. Ending with the fireworks is something I will remember for years to come,” said Deidre Donovan, Vocalist, Disney Concerts.

The cherry on top was the weekend concluded with no major incidences reported. For this, recognition is owed to the hard work and dedication of our staff, musicians, and volunteers, as well as the Edmonton Police Service, Paladin Security, St. John Ambulance, and everyone else who had a hand in making SITS one of the most successful and memorable events in ESO history.

ESO musicians at SITS on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023. Photo by Levi Manchak.

Of course, we would have nothing to write about if our community did not show up to support us. Therefore, the ESO would also like to extend a heartfelt thank you to the 28,000 people from Edmonton, Alberta, and beyond who helped bring our city’s beautiful downtown back to life.

“Having performed in Churchill Square so many years ago, I felt so privileged to experience downtown Edmonton and all it had to offer. So, coming back this year, after everything everyone's been through, and seeing thousands of people gathered in that exact same spot really felt special. It's such a vibrant city, with such wonderful people. It's nice to see downtown Edmonton making a comeback,” said Aaron Phillips, Vocalist, Disney Concerts.

A packed Churchill Square enjoys SITS on Friday, Sept. 1, 2023. Photo by Levi Manchak.