Tower Hall Lawn at San Jose State University is packed. In the shade of MLK Library, people sit in lawn chairs, in beach chairs, on blankets and on the unmown grass. Dogs are tethered to leashes and sit on laps, and babies recline in strollers. At the fringes of the crowd, young children are perched atop their parents’ shoulders and a pair of toddlers engage in an exuberant bow-legged dance to the 200-year-old bombast of Ludwig van Beethoven.

All have come for the first concert in this year’s Target Summer Pops series, featuring the musicians of Symphony Silicon Valley. Sponsored since its inception in 2008 by the Target corporation, the series aims to bring orchestral music to the masses—to democratize an art form sometimes perceived as elitist. The venue is comfortable, the repertoire is accessible, the musicians and conductor trade their accustomed formal wear for red t-shirts, and, most importantly, the concerts are absolutely free.

“We wanted to take away the cost barrier of attending the symphony,” says series producer Andrew Bales. President and general director of Symphony Silicon Valley, Bales has been at the helm of the summer series since the beginning. “This is for everybody. We perform a range of music that fits every taste, all ages. Nobody feels alienated. Nobody feels it’s not for them.”

In a nod to SSV’s heritage, “the first concert of the series always has a light classical tone,” Bales explains. This year’s Summer Pops kicked off with a 75-minute, all-Beethoven program honoring the 30th birthday of the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies, housed on the fifth floor of the King Library.

Conductor Peter Jaffe succeeds in making the material accessible—cracking jokes, providing pointers on understanding and appreciating Beethoven’s genius, and keeping tempos brisk on pieces that can sometimes feel ponderous (the famous opening movement of the Fifth Symphony is a perfect example). Guest pianist Stephen Prutsman shows off Beethoven’s gentler side in the “Emperor” Piano Concerto, and people leave the performance smiling.

Two concerts remain in this summer’s series, both featuring more contemporary tunes.

On Saturday, Aug. 1, acclaimed Bay Area saxophonist Fil Lorenz leads Symphony Silicon Valley in “Big Band Hit Parade,” a program featuring the swing-era hits of the 1930s and ’40s.  In keeping with the authentic big band instrumentation of the period, the ensemble for Saturday’s show will include no string section, but Bales promises “lots of brass, lots of woodwinds, lots of saxophones.” The concert will feature “all of those delightful tunes” made famous by Glen Miller, Tommy Dorsey, the Andrews Sisters, and others, such as “In the Mood,” “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” and more.

It’s music that “really reflects that era,” Bales says, “but it’s tuneful today. It keeps having these revivals because it’s so much fun.”

Then, on Sunday, Aug. 2, the series concludes with a program titled “Hollywood Sound Stage.” Conductor Peter Jaffe returns for an evening of beloved orchestral themes from such blockbuster films as “Gone with the Wind,” “Doctor Zhivago,” “Chariots of Fire,” “Star Wars,” “The Pink Panther,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and the James Bond franchise.

According to Bales, Sunday’s program is designed to highlight the emotional power of the symphony orchestra, with “big,lush themes that just wash off the stage and across the audience.” And if you’re looking for a great way to get the kids hooked on orchestral music, this is it: There will be music from “Frozen,” as well as a free ice cream social courtesy of San Jose’s Treat Ice Cream.

Performances begin at 7pm, but lawn seating is tight by 6:30pm. For the best sound, avoid sitting directly in front of the speakers that flank the stage. Feel free to bring a snack or a whole picnic meal. Bring a light jacket, as the outdoor space can get chilly.

It’s worth noting that this year’s Summer Pops series is the last that will bear the Target name.  With the series well established, the founding corporate sponsor has announced that it will be moving its money to other projects.

Whatever corporate name the series may bear in future years, Bales is adamant about one thing: The Summer Pops will always be free. “The day I have to charge for it is the day I close it,” he says. “This is the largest free music festival in the South Bay. It’s about everybody coming, everybody free.”

Summer Pops
Aug 1, 7pm; Aug 2, 5:30pm, Free
Tower Lawn, San Jose State