As vibrant fall colors sweep over Tanglewood and the entire Berkshire landscape, the Boston Symphony's summer home reports a moderate attendance upswing compared to last year.
At the bellwether of the area's tourism industry, the total audience was 356,407, up nearly 2 percent from last year, and also the highest since 2003 and the fifth-highest on record. The summer of 1998, a one-time experiment with a BSO extra week (nine instead of eight), was the peak year with 386,870 visitors. No surprise that the James Taylor-Carole King Troubadour Reunion -- the second-highest grossing North American tour of the year after Bon Jovi -- drew a three-day total of 55,099 fans to Tanglewood.
The other top attractions included the Aug. 14 Boston Pops Film Night with John Williams (16,999); the Aug. 3 Tanglewood on Parade festivities (14,747); the Aug. 29 BSO season finale with Kurt Masur conducting Beethoven's Ninth (14,573); the Aug. 1 Boston Symphony concert with cellist Yo-Yo Ma (13,657); the Boston Pops July 18 matinee with Keith Lockhart, Arlo Guthrie and Alec Baldwin (11,606); and the BSO concert of Aug. 21 with violinist Joshua Bell (10,367).
Eight other events topped 8,000 listeners -- a mix of BSO and Boston Pops performances as well as Garrison Keillor's annual broadcast (8,398) and the Sept. 1 Crosby, Stills and Nash appearance (8,438).
BSO Managing Director Mark Volpe credited the mostly rain-free summer for the larger crowds. During a talk last Sunday at the Lenox Library's monthly Distinguished Lecture series, he also noted that the "fantastic weather" and the recession helped shift the audience toward the lawn with its family-friendly prices; on Friday nights, two adults and two youngsters could attend for a total of $18.
Overall, the Shed filled 75 percent of its available 5,200 seats for weekend concerts -- a level that has been steady in recent seasons. On Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons, that average rose to 80 percent, but Friday nights continued to be problematic, with below-par attendance as visitors arrive in the area fatigued from urban-area traffic tangles and preferring dining out, for example, to concertgoing. The BSO is exploring new Friday programming scenarios for next summer.
The Boston Symphony -- the world's largest orchestral enterprise with a total annual budget exceeding $80 million -- continues to lose between $3 million and $4 million each summer at Tanglewood, said Volpe in a recent interview at his office, because of maintenance and the cost of operating the Tanglewood Music Center summer academy. However, he pointed out that the organization, on the strength of its year-round BSO and Boston Pops schedules, is breaking even, an achievement matched by only two or three orchestras in this economy.
He also compared the past summer's attendance gain at Tanglewood to other Sheds nationally, where declines ranged from 12 to 15 percent.
Tanglewood's crucial role as the main driver of the county's summer tourism season was emphasized during a recent Berkshire Forum at the Colonial Theatre.
"We need to take care of Tanglewood, the unique cultural asset that Berkshire County has that's different from other regions that have a robust cultural community," said Laurie Norton Moffatt, director and CEO of the Norman Rockwell Museum. "And Tanglewood needs to care of all of us that keep the restaurants and community running the other nine months of the season so this whole thing works seamlessly. It's a very unique, and somewhat fragile economic relationship. Everyone should really understand that Tanglewood is essential to what makes this community thrive, certainly in the summer season."
Norton Moffatt pointed out that the Rockwell Museum, with a 15 percent attendance increase this year, draws its biggest crowds during the BSO's residency -- "the two really high economic months in this region for hospitality, tourism and all the other seasonal cultural organizations, so it's a very interesting relationship we share."
Case in point: Jacob's Pillow Dance, which saw a record number of visitors this summer of 89,000. In its ticketed theaters, 89 percent of the seats were filled.
Despite the nation's continuing economic malaise, Berkshire County's major summer-season cultural sites -- led by Tanglewood -- have regained some momentum, helping drive the region's hospitality sector into a higher-gear recovery.
Clarence Fanto is a former managing editor of The Eagle. He can be contacted by e-mail at