Sitting on a picnic blanket Wednesday night with her husband, Tim, and children Emerson, 2, and Addison, 9 months, Susan Maco said the summer concerts at Centennial Park allow her to see friends who live in Ellicott City and entertain the children at the same time.
"When you've got young kids, it's nice to have open space for them, and we can still listen to the music," said Maco, who made the trip from Odenton in Anne Arundel County.
Sunset Serenades, run by the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks and sponsored by Comcast, brings performances to the park, starting at 7 p.m. Wednesdays, throughout the summer. A $3 parking donation is the only cost, and the many people who walk or bike ride don't pay a cent.
The concert series, now about 15 years old, attracts from several hundred to several thousand visitors each week, said Barbara Lett, special events supervisor for the Department of Recreation and Parks.
And children are generally the most enthusiastic participants. "Our audience naturally saves a space in front of the stage for children to come out and dance," she said. "It's just such a feel-good evening. It's just magic, and people make memories from it."
Indeed, children were twirling and dancing in the soft summer light Wednesday, not bothered that the music was so old-fashioned that even their parents would consider it old-fashioned. The performer was crooner Christian Josi, performing with Sean Lane and the Bay Jazz Project, and the music included selections from Frank Sinatra and Sammy Cahn.
At 7 p.m., as the band was starting, picnic blankets and folding chairs had been set up in the lengthening shadows along a grassy slope facing the stage. A young boy tossed a softball to another boy. Runners and walkers, many with dogs on leashes or babies in strollers, puffed along the concrete path that rings the lake.
Marcia and Joe Yurko of Ellicott City were enjoying the concert with their daughter, Mellissa Woods, and 16-month-old Camryn. "We brought our granddaughter because she likes the music," Marcia said. "It's a great thing to do for the families."
During the one-hour performance, Josi stepped off the amphitheater stage several times to walk among the children as he sang. At one point, he gave a young girl a drum stick, and at another, he wished someone in the audience happy birthday, noting that his own birthday was the following day.
"Are you ready to dance?" he asked the crowd. "This is a Duke Ellington classic -- enjoy." As the band launched into "Caravan," the audience responded with enthusiasm.
Children who weren't dancing worked together to build towers from a pile of sand that had been set up near the lake. By evening's end, two castles had been created. One boy noted that his pile had a solid foundation of rocks, so if "someone tries to kick it, they'll get hurt." It was adorned with three fluffy gray bird feathers on top.
"I really love this event," said Lett, looking at the dancing children and the happy adults.
In previous years, a park concession stand had sold grilled food and corn on the cob, but Lett said the food probably won't be brought back. Meanwhile, patrons seemed to be doing just fine with their picnics, ranging from takeout food to elaborate cold feasts. An ice cream stand was doing blockbuster business.
Lett said that each season she tries to brings a variety of musical styles to the venue. "There might be five jazz groups that I really like, but I don't want to choose that many in a year," she said. She makes her selections by listening to CDs that are sent in and by learning what's popular in the region.
Remaining on the calendar this summer are: The Columbia Concert Band(showtunes, Wednesday); Almost Recess (a cappela, Aug. 3); Melanie Mason (blues/rock, Aug. 10); Pan American Rhythm Project (Latin, Aug. 17); and Rita Clarke and the Naturals (Creole and funk, Aug. 24).
The performers are usually regional, but thanks to a partnership with Columbia Festival of the Arts, an Irish group, Gaelic Storm, kicked off the season with the first concert June 15.
The well-known musicians, who performed on the soundtrack of the movie Titanic, attracted more than 3,000 concert-goers, Lett said. The event was made even more memorable with a free stepdance workshop beforehand by the local Teelin School of Irish Dance.
Wendy and Richard Newell live in Owings Mills, but they heard about Gaelic Storm and attended that concert with their children, 8-year-old Sam and Alex, who is 1. "We happened to have the Gaelic Storm CD," Wendy Newell said, and she decided to surprise her husband by attending the concert. They enjoyed the outdoor event so much they vowed to come back for more Sunset Serenades.
"For me, it's the fact that we can bring our children, and it's also so picturesque," Wendy Newell said. "It's a nice way to spend an evening."
When the music ended Wednesday, the sun was a glowing red ball, turning the sky a hazy pink and bringing a soft glow to the lake.
As with any outdoor summer event, weather is always a concern. Several concerts have been rained out this season. Canceled concerts are not rescheduled.
Lett said she tries to decide by 4 p.m. if an event must be canceled, but quick-moving summer storms sometimes mean she has to cancel the concert right before it starts or even when it is in progress.
Information on Sunset Serenades: 410-313-7275. Weather updates: 410-313-4451.