BBC Music Magazine
Michael Beek realises a long-held ambition and visits a legendary classical music festival in one of America’s most beautiful locations
Michael Beek heads to Tanglewood, Massachusetts
I’m walking in the footsteps of giants. Tanglewood is hallowed ground for sure, and on this particular evening – my first – there’s a palpable feeling of magic in the air. As the sun begins its descent, the last of the daytime visitors are heading home; a group of artists remains, capturing the valley below us in watercolour. The view to the south is breathtaking: rolling emerald forests, lakes and brooks. Beyond the horizon lies New York City, and Boston is a couple of hours or so East on the I-90; this is a real haven away from the hustle and bustle.
Set in 526 acres comprised of what was once three private estates, Tanglewood is nestled in the Berkshire Hills between the pretty towns of Lenox and Stockbridge. This really is America’s green and pleasant land, where the great and good have retreated ever since those big cities grew up and up. Artists and writers, too, have called it home with notable residents including Edith Wharton, Herman Melville, and that great painter of American everyday life, Norman Rockwell.
It has also been a home away from home for the Boston Symphony Orchestra during the summer months since
1937. In 1940 it became the base for the orchestra’s famous summer school and, then, the legendary annual music festival attracting thousands of visitors every year, not to mention some of the biggest names in
music. The attraction to both musicians and concertgoers is easy to understand, as the BSO’S artistic director Anthony Fogg explains. ‘It’s this incredible combination of the most exquisite landscape and great music,’ he says, ‘and in the sort of combination that I think is probably unique anywhere in the world. It’s just physically a breathtaking space, and it’s one that draws you into the world of music.’
He’s right; everything about Tanglewood has been designed to open up live music to as many people as possible, with performance spaces of various sizes dotted all over the estate. At its heart is the massive Koussevitzky Shed, named after the BSO’S former music director and founder of the Tanglewood Music Center – it seats 5,000, while a further 13,000 can surround it on the vast lawns. Seiji Ozawa Hall, built in the ’90s, opens completely at one end allowing people to sit on the sloping lawn and enjoy concerts from afar. The most recent addition,
The Tanglewood Learning Institute, is scheduled to open this summer. Offering year-round facilities and experiences for the first time, the programme will be aimed at both musicians and aficionados.
At my first concert in ‘The Shed’, a performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony conducted by Andris Nelsons, I see couples clutching Tanglewood-branded seat cushions, decades old, and wearing hats and sweatshirts emblazoned with the name. These are local, passionate supporters who will have enjoyed many seasons of great music here. It’s likely they sit in the same seats every season, and you can only imagine the names they’ve seen.
This particular weekend we’re gathering to celebrate the centenary of Leonard Bernstein, one of Tanglewood’s most legendary regulars. It’s a place that was really important to him, says the BSO’S managing director Mark Volpe. ‘Lenny was obviously music director of the New York Philharmonic, and had relationships with orchestras in Vienna, Tel Aviv, Japan and Hamburg, but the place he started and the place he finished was Tanglewood. It’s a five-decade relationship and almost every year he was here. His last concert was here and he found a way to organise his schedule to find two or three weeks virtually every summer.’
There’s a statue of Bernstein in the grounds, but I never find it, seemingly endless are the myriad lawns and wooded paths. I do find a memorial to Aaron Copland – another Tanglewood icon. The secluded garden has a remarkable bust of the composer at its centre; his ashes were buried here, and it feels like sacred ground. ‘You feel the spirit of these big giants,’ agrees the BSO’S current music director, Andris Nelsons, ‘whether it’s Copland, Bernstein or Koussevitzky; these big people in the music world have been here and left part of their lives and their energy. They left their DNA in the trees.’
You do feel history all around you as you walk the wooded paths, and you never know who you’ll bump into. One quiet afternoon, in fact, I bump into composer John Williams, yet another regular visitor.
As I drift off to sleep at my B&B across the road on that first magical night, I hear a Bernstein refrain on the breeze. Is it an echo of a long-ago concert, or simply the BSO rehearsing the weekend’s centenary gala? I have a feeling anything is possible at Tanglewood.
Further information: The 2019 Tanglewood Festival takes place
15 June – 1 Sept. Visit bso.org for details.
Leonard Bernstein’s ashes were buried here, and it feels like sacred ground