Friday June 22, 2012

LENOX -- It's party time at Tanglewood -- a nine-week celebration of the Boston Symphony Orchestra's summer home, which is marking its 75th-anniversary season with an all-star lineup slated to perform at Berkshire County's top tourist attraction.

The BSO, the Boston Pops and the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra of young professionals earning their credentials at the summer institute will offer their usual heavy schedule of performances in the Shed and Ozawa Hall.

The Tanglewood season begins tonight at 8 at Ozawa with the Silk Road Ensemble, featuring cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The BSO's opening night is July 6, and Tanglewood's 75th-anniversary celebration is July 14.

The Silk Road Ensemble with cellist Yo-Yo Ma opens the season at Ozawa Hall tonight at 8.
The Silk Road Ensemble with cellist Yo-Yo Ma opens the season at Ozawa Hall tonight at 8. (Courtesy Boston Symphony Orchestra)

Guests artists for the season include Tanglewood stalwarts John Williams, James Taylor and Garrison Keillor, as well as jazz-pop vocalist Diana Krall and Broadway diva Bernadette Peters.

Apart from its rank as the nation's leading summer music festival focusing on classical music, the 526-acre campus that straddles the Lenox-Stockbridge town line remains Berkshire County's No. 1 attraction, with nearly 350,000 concertgoers each summer.

Tanglewood pours $60 million into the Berkshires' tourism economy each year, according to an oft-cited study by Williams College economics professor Stephen C. Sheppard.

"They're generating a huge amount of impact on the Berkshire County economy," he said. "The whole economy would actually feel it if they were to pull up stakes and stay in Boston for a full year."

With declining interest in classical music and financial woes afflicting many presenters, the pressures placed on BSO management are intense and wide-ranging.

With declining interest in classical music and financial woes afflicting many presenters, the pressures placed on BSO management are intense and wide-ranging.

John Williams conducts the Boston Pops last year. Tanglewood and the Pops will feature an 80th-birthday tribute to the legendary conductor Aug. 18.
John Williams conducts the Boston Pops last year. Tanglewood and the Pops will feature an 80th-birthday tribute to the legendary conductor Aug. 18. (Photo courtesy Tanglewood / Hilary Scott)

Attendance has plateaued in recent years, and the orchestra's chief executive, Mark Volpe, told The Eagle he is looking to popular attractions outside of the BSO season (July 6-Aug. 26) to expand the audience and diversify the musical palette.

While firmly maintaining the organization's dedication to its core mission of presenting Western art music, past and present, and helping train the next generation of orchestra players, Volpe, 54, concedes the future is challenging but says Tanglewood isn't struggling.

Confirming that the BSO loses $2 million to $3 million on its summer season, and sometimes "a little more," Volpe stressed that the BSO's base of donors, corporate sponsors and a healthy endowment offers a firm financial ballast.

As of March, the endowment total was $383.8 million, among the highest in the United States for an orchestra or opera house.

Volpe acknowledged a programming trend that reflects a focus on tried-and-true classical masterworks.

The 75th-anniversary season, however, includes nine world premieres of new compositions, including one by Andre Previn.

"Candidly, recognizing that we start out with an empty Shed of 5,100 seats, it [the programming] is going to be more populist," Volpe said. "But we're not about to go the way of other summer venues that de-emphasize classical music. We have to be aware of where the market is. Audience tastes have changed, and the level of music literacy is not what it once was."

The BSO's search for a new music director to succeed James Levine, who is having health problems, remains a major pressure, Volpe said, adding that ideally, the BSO would find a "great maestro" who would maintain a high profile at Tanglewood as well as in Boston.

"We want a unifying force with a philosophy that hopefully will impact the programming at Tanglewood but also the school," Volpe said, referring to the Tanglewood Music Center. "This is why this is probably the most challenging search."

The demands of a celebrity oriented public and media world are another pressure point, as the job description for the next conductor includes a leader "with some presence, some sense of the power of the media, how music gets disseminated in the next generation," Volpe said.

Tanglewood patrons enjoy a performance on the lawn in front of the Koussevitzky Music Shed in 1963.
Tanglewood patrons enjoy a performance on the lawn in front of the Koussevitzky Music Shed in 1963. (Eagle file)

New media will play a prominent role in the BSO's 75th-anniversary celebrations at Tanglewood. The orchestra's online presence has been enhanced through streaming -- 75 classic Shed performances will be posted each day this summer, free for the first 24 hours and available for individual purchase thereafter or by an all-access subscription.

The website www.bso.org attracts 7 million visitors per year, selling tickets and offering a media store as well as free educational material.

"When you realize how much content and functionality is on the site, it's formidable," Volpe said. "Ultimately, I see new media as a vehicle to drive people to concerts but also to further awareness of all our activities and for the cause of orchestral music."

Volpe said the organization is focused on Facebook, Twitter and other social media to reach younger generations in order to create the audiences of the future.

Meanwhile, the BSO plans to invest at least $60 million in Tanglewood to upgrade the facility and create a separate endowment to support the maintenance of the campus, including the 5,121-seat Koussevitzky Music Shed and the 1,180-seat Ozawa Hall.

While Volpe is firm in his declaration that "it's not going to become a rock venue," he stressed the impact of the BSO's summer home on the Berkshires' hospitality industry.

As Lenox Town Manager Gregory Federspiel sees it, "They're the big guy on the block, so Tanglewood is responsible for putting the town on the map in lots of ways. They're a world-class organization, so they elevate Lenox's stature to world-class level."

Federspiel predicts the focus on classical music will continue, "as it should, and they'll be successful at it."

But even with 349,704 tickets sold last summer, the reality is that, for the typical BSO season, 25 percent of Shed seats are empty.

Last summer, Taylor's three solo performances and his guest stint with the Boston Pops accounted for nearly 60,000 in attendance. In all, non-classical ventures represented 30 percent of the tickets sold.

The attendance record was set in 1998, with 386,870. The BSO is marshaling major marketing muscle this summer in an effort to approach, or even exceed, that mark.

If that happens, it will be another cause for celebration during this anniversary season.

To reach Clarence Fanto:
cfanto@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6247.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto




At a glance

Season: Tonight through Sept. 2.

Highlights (events at Shed unless noted): Tonight at 8, Ozawa Hall: Silk Road Ensemble with cellist Yo-Yo Ma; June 30, 5:45 p.m: Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" live broadcast; July 2-4, 7 p.m.: James Taylor and his band; July 6, 8:30 p.m.: BSO opening night, all-Beethoven program; fireworks afterward; July 14, 8:30 p.m.: 75th-anniversary celebration, BSO, Boston Pops, TMC Orchestra, James Taylor, Yo-Yo Ma, other soloists; Aug. 7, 2 p.m.: Tanglewood on Parade; Aug. 18, 8:30 p.m.: Boston Pops' 80th-birthday tribute to John Williams; Aug. 26, 2:30 p.m.: BSO season finale, Beethoven's Symphony No. 9; Aug. 31, 7 p.m.: Train; Sept. 2, 2:30 p.m.: closing day, Boston Pops, Michael Feinstein guest soloist.

Tickets: (888) 266-1200; www.tanglewood.org; main-gate box office, 297 West St., Lenox.