Clarence Fanto: Summer's sounding good, so far



With three more Popular Artists performances added to an already crowded summer slate, Tanglewood's goals are echoing loud and clear three months ahead of the first sounds of music in the 5,100-seat Shed.

The Boston Symphony, bereft of James Taylor and his box-office potency this season, had a target of eight Popular Artists events, in addition to a record five Boston Pops performances, several jazz concerts at Ozawa Hall and two public radio live broadcasts. Six out of those eight are scheduled so far.

The organization is responding to a demand, especially from locals and visitors in younger age groups, for a more diverse, populist range of programming beyond the BSO's main mission of presenting Western art music over an eight-week season and the commitment to the Tanglewood Music Center summer institute for advanced young performers.

Fueling the box office is crucial, of course, since the BSO loses up to $3 million a year on its summer operations in the Berkshires, though it operates close to break-even year-round. No wonder Tanglewood offers premium parking near the main gate for $25 through its online ticket sales for Popular Artists events -- something it has been doing since 2011, unbeknownst to me.

The scheduling of three Popular Artists events on a pre-season weekend, June 21-23, also gladdens the hearts of local innkeepers and business proprietors who welcome the influx of visitors a week earlier than usual.

Announced last Monday, with online and telephone ticket sales beginning tomorrow (March 25) at 10 a.m.: Joan Baez with Indigo Girls on June 23; Barenaked Ladies (BNL) with Ben Folds Five and Guster on Tuesday July 23; and Grace Potter & the Nocturnals with Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band on Monday, Aug 19.

Confession, with a risk of being taunted: I only discovered last Monday, when researching these acts, that Barenaked Ladies don't perform naked, not even barely, nor are they ladies. Hold your fire: I'm a classical music, Broadway and golden oldies maven.

On the other hand, Joan Baez, now 72, is a Baby Boomer favorite who first performed in the Berkshires 50 years ago. Former Eagle Entertainment Editor Milton Bass remembers reviewing her local debut at the Pittsfield Boys Club on Aug. 17, 1963, where she introduced the mostly-unknown Bob Dylan, her paramour at the time, to the crowd.

"The audience was close to booing Dylan because they were there for Joan Baez," Bass told me. "They were very enthusiastic about Joan but people were complaining they couldn't understand Dylan's lyrics. He got only limited applause."

Baez appeared at Tanglewood in 1979 and 1990.

Previous bookings for this summer include Melissa Etheridge, a Boston Pops tribute concert featuring Jerry Garcia's music, Jackson Browne and the Steve Miller Band.

A requested box-office tally of the summer's top 10 hot tickets, based on advance sales, yielded the following list:

1. Jackson Browne (July 4); 2. Boston Pops: Jerry Garcia Tribute (June 22); 3. Boston Pops Film Night: John Williams, Audra McDonald (Aug. 24); 4. Boston Pops: Country star Vince Gill (July 7); 5. Boston Symphony Orchestra: Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, conductor Charles Dutoit (Aug. 4); 6. BSO: "West Side Story" score & screening (July 13); 7. Tanglewood on Parade (Aug. 6); 8. BSO Opening Night: Violinist Joshua Bell (July 5); 9. Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer & guests: The Goat Rodeo Sessions (Aug. 15); 10. BSO: Pianist Lang Lang; Charles Dutoit (Aug. 3).

It should come as no surprise that only four of the top 10 are BSO classical offerings, with celebrity soloists.

BSO Managing Director Mark Volpe, dedicated to preserving the orchestra's central mission, has frequently declared his openness to booking pop performers preseason, as well as Labor Day weekend and on the very few "dark nights" during July and August when no BSO or Tanglewood Music Center performances are scheduled.

Developing audiences of the future for classical music remains a daunting task, considering that the average age of Shed patrons at Tanglewood is in the mid-60s, according to marketing studies released by the orchestra.

Volpe is also leading the challenging search for a new BSO music director; whether the choice will be revealed this spring remains a closely guarded secret.

While the BSO at Tanglewood is far from the only player in town during the high season, it's the heavyweight in terms of annual audience tallies, averaging 350,000 per summer -- more than double the runner-ups such as The Clark museum in Williamstown, Mass MoCA in North Adams and the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge.

The Popular Artists series is not a newfangled feature; the high-water mark came in 1976, when there were 13 concerts. In recent years, there have been six, on average, including three or four by Taylor nearly every summer.

Given 21st century pop-culture realities and audience tastes, elitists who bemoan the populist programming overlook the fact that without it, Tanglewood's 60-plus classical performances (including everything at Ozawa Hall) could not be supported.

Fortunately, the BSO has a healthy endowment, near $400 million at last report, and is well-supported by winter season audiences at Symphony Hall in Boston as well as by the continuing appeal of the Boston Pops, still a big moneymaker.

I once heard a so-called joke that if the orchestra loses too much money at Tanglewood, it could fold its tent and sell its 523 acres to developers for a forest of condos. I didn't hear any laughter. "Perish the thought" was my reaction.

Very few year-round Berkshirites choose to attend Tanglewood, other than James Taylor and other pop and rock artists, even though the organization supplies hundreds of decent-paying summer jobs to local youth and law-enforcement personnel.

Why not check out a concert, especially under the stars on the lawn with high-def screens televising the action from the stage? It would be a small but significant investment in the well-being of our summer cultural scene, which fuels the hospitality industry, providing at least 11,000 jobs and supporting a vibrant second-home real-estate market.

I know a native, previously a rock-concert devotee, who discovered the classics and opera by trying Tanglewood. The rewards are major, the risk is non-existent, and it could open up new worlds of pleasure as well as spiritual fulfillment. To put it another way, and this is not a BSO guarantee but my own promise: "Money back if not satisfied."

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