Clarence Fanto: A tightrope walk at Tanglewood

Monday February 4, 2013


With as many as five Popular Artists and other special-event programs still to be announced, the upcoming summer season at Tanglewood already has emerged as diverse and populist in its appeal.

There are a record five Boston Pops presentations, and Jackson Browne and Melissa Etheridge will return to the Boston Symphony’s summer home. While James Taylor takes a year-long break from touring to complete an album of original material, the Boston Symphony is pulling out all the stops to fill the gap.

Celebrity guest artists such as violinist Joshua Bell, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and pianists Emanuel Ax and Lang Lang provide marquee value and help fill the 5,100 seat Shed, which sells 75 percent of its capacity, on average, each summer.


It’s clear, even to discomfited purists and semi-purists, that the BSO is walking a tightrope at Tanglewood between preserving the core mission of presenting Western classical music and sustaining the costly summer operation, which has been losing $3 million to $4 million annually.

The overhead of artists’ fees, maintaining the 525-acre campus and nurturing the next generation of young professionals at the Tanglewood Music Center is an ongoing challenge, as BSO Managing Director Mark Volpe acknowledges.

Apart from pumping box-office sales, typically close to 350,000 ticket buyers, Volpe and his colleagues are closely monitoring the potential impact of tax-code changes on donors and corporate sponsors who provide half or more of the BSO’s revenues.

Other orchestras are in the same boat. The New York Philharmonic, without a summer-season base and facing the same financial pressures, has broadened its Lincoln Center season with film nights, a "Symphonic Sondheim" event this past week and an upcoming evening celebrating the Chinese New Year.

As Volpe has pointed out, the BSO is able to maintain its dedication to the core classical repertoire -- and its presentations of soloists, chamber music, opera and contemporary music at Ozawa Hall -- because it has the Boston Pops, which provides profitable infusions of cash during its Christmas and spring seasons, as well as its annual touring schedule.

Despite the prolonged absence of a music director since James Levine’s retirement and a complex search that remains to be completed, the orchestra has been performing at the top of its game, a tribute to its professionalism and esprit de corps.

In a conversation a week ago, Volpe could not commit to a timetable for announcing the outcome of the search nor comment on the finalists. There are four contenders, according to unofficial reports, including the Latvian Andris Nelsons, the Frenchman Stephane Deneve, the fiery Italian Daniele Gatti and the Russian Vladimir Jurowski. All four have impressed Boston critics and audiences, and presumably the BSO players; all except Gatti are on the Tanglewood schedule this summer.

No matter who is chosen, the need to attract large audiences to Tanglewood through mainstream programming -- including the frequent repetition of the same symphonies and concertos by Beethoven, Brahms, Dvorak and Tchaikovsky -- will persist.

As a leading classical figure in the United Kingdom warned recently, orchestras must "ride a wave of change" or die. That widely-disseminated pronouncement by Max Hole, who runs Universal Music’s classical labels, included exhortations for less-formal dress by players, more visible interaction between the musicians and listeners, and the encouragement of applause whenever audiences are so motivated.


Speaking to the Association of British orchestras, Hole -- a former manager of rock bands -- also urged a full embrace of the digital revolution, including streaming and downloads, and the use of social media to stoke excitement. He insisted that the existing core audience must be broadened to "people like me who would engage in classical music if they didn’t feel it was elitist or forbidding."

"Musicians need to think about the way they dress, and need to appear more excited and engaged with the audience," he told the gathering. "There’s more to it than just taking a couple of bows at the end of a concert." In his view, the label "classical" could alienate the audience as traditional approaches "are in danger of causing the genre great harm and hindering its growth." Hole’s proposals include podium chats by conductors, the use of big screens to display the on-stage action, and a theatrical approach to lighting. He claims to speak for many folks who love music but feel put off by the traditions and conventions of the classical music world.

The barrier, in his view, is caused by "the perceived elitism that’s perpetuated by unwritten etiquette that many find perplexing and intimidating. There are too many ‘clap here, not there’ protocols to abide by, for people to feel at ease Š We need to be daring and break with convention if we are to show the world that classical music is not a sleepy, stuffy genre, but a force to be reckoned with, and something that can be enjoyed by all," Hole declared.

The BSO has stepped up by de-mystifying its concerts in a myriad of ways while preserving important traditions. It’s a delicate maneuver, but the betting here is that the orchestra will survive and prosper.

Clarence Fanto is a regular Eagle contributor.


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