Boston University professor Jeremy Yudkin is on a mission to acquaint Tanglewood concertgoers with classical music.
Boston University professor Jeremy Yudkin is on a mission to acquaint Tanglewood concertgoers with classical music. (Photo courtesy Kalman Zabarsky / Boston University)

LENOX -- A self-described "odd duck" as a musicologist, longtime Stockbridge resident and Boston University professor Jeremy Yudkin has been an educator on a mission during the past three decades.

Every summer since 1983, Yudkin has presented a series for Tanglewood concertgoers to acquaint them with the Boston Symphony's weekend programs. Originally, the lectures were a joint presentation of BU and the BSO. For the past 10 years, Yudkin's course has been self-managed.

This year's Tanglewood Pre-Concert Lecture Series launches this afternoon in the Welles Gallery of the Lenox Library, Yudkin's home base in recent years. The 90-minute programs begin at 2:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays through the summer and include recorded samplings of the music to be performed by the BSO on the same evening.

Born and bred in London and living around the corner from the Abbey Road studios where the Beatles produced all their recordings, Yudkin, 65, said he was profoundly influenced by the major cultural sea change of the 1960s, especially the impact of the Beatles and other British rock groups.

After a stint as a journeyman auto mechanic for a California dealership called Gus Mozart's, Yudkin emerged as an unusually diverse professor with credentials including a doctorate in historical musicology from Stanford University in California on top of his undergraduate and master's degrees in classics and modern languages from Cambridge University in England.


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His BU schedule for the upcoming semester lists an advanced graduate seminar on medieval music and an undergraduate course on the music of the Beatles. He has written nine books, including a history of the mid-20th century Lenox School of Jazz.

"The BSO has been extremely supportive of my series," Yudkin noted during a conversation at the Lenox Library. But this year, the orchestra has started its own music-appreciation presentations, "BSO 101," on four Wednesday afternoons. In addition, on Friday evenings at 7:15 in the Koussevitzky Shed, veteran broadcaster and writer Martin Bookspan hosts "This Week at Tanglewood" with guest artists discussing upcoming concerts.

According to Yudkin, his series attracts a "very large percentage of returnees, probably 80 percent." Several participants have attended every summer for 25 years, he said.

In an effort to attract more music lovers, Yudkin has dropped the price to $10 per session, aiming to attract 20 to 25 participants in each class. This Friday's session is titled "What a Way to Start! Joshua Bell and Tchaikovsky" and Saturday's is "The Creation of the World in One Symphony: Mahler's Stupendous Third Symphony." Advance registration is not required.

"One of the things I'm hoping to do by this drastic reduction in prices is to encourage younger people to come," said Yudkin.

He disputes the widely-held notion that the concertgoers of today are less knowledgeable than those of 30 years ago. "My audiences have been people who are not necessarily very expert in music," he declared.

"The whole point is to talk to people who aren't experts," Yudkin added, "so the people who come are the same as they've always been, people who love music but don't know a tremendous amount about it. They find that the lectures strongly enhance their enjoyment of the concerts."

Yudkin acknowledged that he has spent his career trying to knock down perceptions of classical music as an elitist pursuit, beginning with adult-education courses he taught in the Palo Alto, Calif., school district as he completed his Stanford degree work.

"I'm very, very passionate about breaking down these barriers to classical music," he declared. "Once they become familiar with it, there's absolutely no reason why people can't enjoy it, irrespective of their background or sophistication."

"I think the kind of thing I do, to explain to people a little bit about it, to give them access to the music and things to think about when they're listening, is absolutely crucial to the future of classical music," he said. "I think that's why the BSO is so supportive of what I do."

Yudkin concedes that his wide range of musical interests has its upsides and downsides. "The cons are that you don't become a world-renowned expert in one field," he said. "But the pros for somebody like me are that you can become fairly knowledgeable about a large number of different things."

To contact Clarence Fanto:
cfanto@yahoo.com
or (413) 637-2551.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto

If you go ...

What: Tanglewood Pre-Concert Lectures by Boston University professor Jeremy Yudkin.

When: 2:30-4 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Lenox Library, July 5-Aug. 24. $10 per day. Advance signup not required.

Information: E-mail YudkinJaf@gmail.com or (413) 637-2800.

In his own words ...

On the future of Tanglewood and the BSO following the selection of Andris Nelsons as music director: "I think it's an extremely exciting appointment. I was desperately hoping all along that they would make that decision. ... To hire someone who is that young, dynamic and ferociously gifted is a very exciting development for the BSO, which has not had such young and dynamic conductors for a while."

On Yudkin's music-appreciation course: "Each class is focused on that evening's concert, so the class is devoted to what the orchestra is playing that night. At an hour and half, the class is short enough not to take up too much time but long enough to get into the music in some detail. The idea is to convey to people enough about the concert so that when they go to hear it, it's sufficiently familiar so the background and the way the pieces are put together are known to them so they don't have to struggle when they go. They already have a handle on things to listen to and ways to listen. My aim is to have people say, after they come to the lectures, they enjoy the music twice as much."

On interaction with participants in the class: "I encourage them to interrupt and ask anything they want, it's very informal. Some people think they're asking stupid questions, but my motto is that there isn't such a thing as a stupid question because if somebody wants to know something, it's not stupid."

-- Clarence Fanto