Ruth Bass: Concert-goers angle but don't tangle on summer Sunday shade

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RICHMOND — If the command to circle the wagons was given at Tanglewood, a melee would ensue as the lawn people scrambled to comply. On a sunny Sunday afternoon, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra draws more wagons than a country fair in 1910. Decades ago, people came to sprawl on a blanket with a citronella candle. Now they come with wheels to accommodate all their stuff.

It's not just the much-touted extremists who set a table with a white cloth, candelabra and flowers. It's the people who pull wagons at least three feet long, filled with chairs, food and, sometimes, small children. Those who don't have wagons need sherpas. The big bags slung over their shoulders suggest tripods or hunting equipment, but they're just containers for folding chairs fitted with table, cup holder and a canopy overhead.

Getting settled on the lawn early is crucial. Some want to be close to the Shed and the music. Many are anxious to stake out space in a shady spot, and the wisest calculate where the sun will be for the whole afternoon. It's not nice if your cool place under a tree is suddenly blasted with sun. The shortage of trees means that things are a little crowded under every one of them, but no one seems to mind if strangers' blankets touch or, occasionally, if strangers' feet touch blankets.

A special copper beech tree near the Shed is still small enough to basically be two-person shade. I recently tucked in with a couple who did not seem to mind, and the situation turned out perfectly. They had tickets for seats and told me they were about to disappear, leaving the tree to me. It was lovely — the music floating out, the breeze rippling across the lawn, the birds perching atop the Shed, the spot shaded.

But the most wonderful thing is the sound of the lawn — abuzz with conversation, shouts, laughter and all those wheels rolling along the walks. And then the music starts and hundreds and hundreds of people make almost no sound. The hum of humans is gone, except for the occasional jarring note when someone throws a bottle into the waste bin or the soft slap of flip-flops as people walk.

And how they walk. While the musicians perform, lawn people walk. To the restrooms, to see other people, maybe just to walk. A woman in a flowing burnt orange dress makes no noise as she unselfconsciously walks away from the Shed, one arm raised and conducting, burnt orange nails glossy in the sun. A man is moved to do a bit of yoga, people walking past my small tree come perilously close to stepping on my toes. Holding hands, a couple on the sidewalk glide along, stop to kiss, then move on.

It's a diverse audience in age — from babies to grandmothers — and that is reassuring to those who remember when too many of the Tanglewood crowd were eligible for AARP. It's also as diverse in fashion as it could possibly be, short of bathing suits or the full monte. A few women are dressed as if for a gala, a notable number of men wear jackets (and look uncomfortable). Hats are ubiquitous. Knees, too. And a lot of people are in shorts, shorter shorts, sleeveless tops and T-shirts that label them with a college or a company. And whether they're listening or not, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky waft over them, tucking into their brains, on a Sunday afternoon in what seems like Lenox but is mostly Stockbridge.

Ruth Bass loves the summer Sunday lawn. Her website is www.ruthbass.com.

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