Establishing a music mecca


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She was a short, stocky woman who sometimes wore mannish clothing, insisted on good manners, and built her own home in Stockbridge.

Her name was Gertrude Robinson Smith, a determined woman once described as a "tornado of energy" by a newspaper columnist. The history of Tanglewood basically starts with "Gertie," because without her influence in the mid-1930s, the Boston Symphony Orchestra's summer home in the Berkshires may never have existed.

It was Smith who helped arrange the first Berkshire Symphonic Festival with the New York Philharmonic in 1934, and she brought the BSO to the Berkshires for the first time in 1936.

Tornado of energy, indeed. Her initial appointment with BSO conductor Serge Koussevitzky, later credited as the founder of Tanglewood, was scheduled for 15 minutes.

The meeting lasted two hours.

But Gertie's crowning achievement may have occurred in 1937, the year Mrs. Gorham Brooks and her aunt, Mary Aspinwall Tappan, gave the family estate, Tanglewood, to Koussevitzky for use as a concert venue. Koussevitzky wanted an orchestral shell built on the property, but a tent was the best that could be managed that year.

On the evening of Aug. 12, 1937, a tremendous rainstorm broke out while the BSO was performing Wagner's "The Ride of the Valkyries." It rained so hard that "the French horns shipped water," according to one newspaper account.

Gertie seized the moment. Striding to the stage, she told the water-logged audience, "Now do you see why we must have a permanent building for these concerts?"

Later that evening, $30,000 was pledged for the construction of what now is now known as The Shed. Continuing to work her contacts, Smith raised the additional money, which was enough to construct the 5,700-seat Shed for $90,000 in 1938.

Gertie remained involved with the project until 1955, when the Berkshire Symphonic Festival's corporation dissolved and what is now known as the Koussevitzky Music Shed was turned over to the BSO.

"I think that she was really the hero in all of this," said Tony Fogg, the BSO's artistic administrator. "She was the one who really seized on the idea ... who really saw it as an opportunity for the Berkshires. She didn't want a half-baked music festival. She wanted something very significant."

Two years after The Shed opened, Koussevitzky and the BSO founded the Berkshire Music Center, now known as the Tanglewood Music Center, to train music students. The initial class of 1940 included a young conductor named Leonard Bernstein. The BSO had been interested in establishing such a school since Henry Higginson founded the orchestra in 1881.

"The idea was always floating around, but it was Serge Koussevitzky who determined that Tanglewood was the way to do it," Fogg said.

Fogg said Tanglewood's history has been influenced by the BSO's musical directors over the past 75 years: Koussevitzky, Charles Munch, Erich Leinsdorf, William Steinberg, Seiji Ozawa and James Levine.

"They've brought different innovations in different ways," Fogg said.

There have been several other highlights through the years: The Boston Pops first performed at Tanglewood in 1954; Bernstein conducted his final concert there in 1990; Seijia Ozawa Hall was built in 1994; and what was to become Film Night -- an annual highlight of the Tanglewood season -- began in 1997.

A Berkshire man who has served as an usher at Tanglewood for 40 years views the property as an island of serenity in an often disconcerting world.

"It's a place that's so peaceful," said 91-year-old Bob Rosenblatt, who first visited Tanglewood in 1947. "It's the antithesis to the disharmony you see in our country today. That all seems to go away at Tanglewood."

BSO music directors at Tanglewood

Serge Koussevitzky 1924-49

Charles Munch 1949-62

Erich Leinsdorf 1962-69

William Steinberg 1969-72

Seiji Ozawa 1973-2002

James Levine 2004-11

To reach Tony Dobrowolski:,
(413) 496-6224.
On Twitter: @tonydobrow


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