At Tanglewood, the music and the mountains are in concert

August 15, 1993|By David Conrads | David Conrads,Contributing Writer

In western Massachusetts, the hills really are alive with the sound of music.

At least they are when Tanglewood, one of the world's premier music festivals and the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, has its season.

Nestled in the serene beauty of the Berkshire Hills, in the quintessentially New England town of Lenox, Mass., Tanglewood 50 or more mostly classical concerts spread over nine weeks from the first of July through Labor Day weekend.

It's the grande dame of American music festivals and attracts some of the most glittering stars on the international music scene. Along with its music school, Tanglewood is a place where students and professionals, orchestra members and guests form community of musicians -- studying, teaching and performing.

Make that lots of performing. A typical season includes 25 or more concerts by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, each with a different program, blending familiar classics with the occasional rarity. A visiting orchestra makes at least one appearance, star soloists appear regularly, and chamber concerts and a semi-staged opera are scheduled. Students of the Tanglewood Music Center and the Boston University Tanglewood Institute, which make up the educational arm of the festival, also perform.

For those less interested in classical music, a weekend of jazz and at least one pop concert are staged. If all that isn't enough, the public is invited to the Boston Symphony's open rehearsals on Saturday mornings.

For some patrons, it is a toss-up which is the greater attraction: the music or the setting. Tanglewood's 210 acres of lawns, gardens, woods and meadows are idyllic. Strolling the grounds before the start of the concert is an indispensable part of an evening at Tanglewood.

The Koussevitzky Music Shed, the main stage, provides reserved, covered seating for 5,000 listeners. The extensive lawn in front provides almost unlimited "seating" at greatly reduced ticket prices.

People stake out spaces on the lawn and bring picnic suppers, which can be purchased at area restaurants and cafes. The sound system is excellent, and because only those at the very front of the lawn can see the stage (because of the slope of the ground), it really doesn't matter where you sit.

Weather is a factor. If you are not in the shed, there just aren't enough trees to go around in case of a sudden downpour. And while summer days in the Berkshires can be hot and muggy, nights are often pleasant and cool -- sometimes downright cold. Many first-time visitors have learned the hard way to bring a sweater, even in August.

The festival began in 1934 when a committee of well-heeled summer and year-round Berkshire residents invited the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra to give a series of three outdoor concerts in a riding ring about three miles south of what today is Tanglewood. The festival committee wanted, among other things, to create an American counterpart to the Salzburg Music Festival, the famed symphonic festival set like a gem in the Austrian Alps.

While outermost Massachusetts may seem an unlikely spot for such a lofty ambition, the Berkshires are a natural setting for a music festival. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the region was a haven for writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Edith Wharton and Oliver Wendell Holmes and for artists like Daniel Chester French and Norman Rockwell. It was also a popular summering spot for wealthy families, including the Vanderbilts and Carnegies.

Successful start

The festival's first two summers were enormously successful, drawing large and enthusiastic crowds, and even turning an unexpected profit. In 1936, the festival committee invited the Boston Symphony, led by the celebrated Russian conductor Serge Koussevitzky, to perform the following summer. Their series of three concerts drew an impressive total of 15,000 people.

With Koussevitzky on the podium, Tanglewood began to realize JTC one of the dreams of its founders by attracting listeners, and media attention, from across the country and abroad.

That winter, the festival received an enormous boost when Mrs. Gorham Brooks, a Boston resident and symphony enthusiast, and Mary Aspinwall Tappan, her elderly aunt, offered the Tappan family estate as a permanent home for the festival. (The family had named the estate "Tanglewood" because Hawthorne wrote his "Tanglewood Tales" in a cottage on the site.) The gift of a house and land was gratefully accepted, and, in 1937, Koussevitzky led the Boston Symphony in an all-Beethoven program that launched the Tanglewood of today.

Early on, only the musicians were protected by a tent; the audience was sometimes completely uncovered. Construction of a pavilion was planned, then delayed because of the expense. But in 1937 a thunderstorm -- perhaps the most famous in Berkshire County history -- speeded construction unexpectedly.

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