Tanglewood at 75

Thursday June 28, 2012

Tanglewood has come a long way in 75 years -- but not too far. A large part of the appeal of this renowned cultural and economic engine of the Berkshires is that as it adjusts to the de mands of modern audiences it retains the charm of a kinder, gentler era, while honoring and advancing the cause of a timeless form of music rooted in a far earlier era.

Tanglewood has twin founders in Gertrude Robinson Smith and Serge Koussevitzky, and the debt the county owes them is immeasurable. Take a look at the Eagle file photo of a formidable looking Miss Smith on Page 7 of today's special Tanglewood supplement and you'll see the gaze of a Stockbridge woman used to getting what she wanted, and what she wanted was a serious classical music festival in the Berkshires. She brought the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Mr. Koussevitzky, to the Berkshires in 1936 and a year later Mrs. Gorham Brooks and Mary Aspinwall Tappan donated the family estate, Tanglewood, for use as a concert venue. A timely downpour in August that soaked the tent made the case for the permanent venue that Ms. Smith and Mr. Koussevitzsky demanded and the Shed was built a year later. Tanglewood was on its way and here to stay.

Mr. Koussevitzky wanted not only to establish a summer festival for the BSO but to make it a teaching institution where the best classical musicians could instruct the next generation, keeping the extraordinary music form alive and expanding upon it. That mission remains intact, and it is one of the reasons so many acknowledged greats, among them Leonard Bernstein, Seiji Ozawa and James Levine, have shaped Tanglewood over the decades.

Change, of course, has come in many forms. The purchase of adjacent property allowed Tanglewood to grow, most significantly with the addition of the spectacular Ozawa Hall. Its remarkable acoustics and visual beauty make it an ideal recital hall, and the sloped lawn hosts an outdoor audience on summer nights.

The Boston Pops first arrived with Arthur Fielder at the helm in 1954 and have been a regular presence since. Conductor and film score composer John Williams became a regular visitor, as has singer-songer writer and Berkshire resident James Taylor. Tangle wood suddenly found itself on the cutting edge of rock-and-roll in the 1970s when legendary promoter Bill Graham brought in bands like The Who and Jefferson Airplane. Large crowds, loud noise and angry neighbors brought this era to an end but it was a glorious one.

As Tanglewood pursued ways to expand its audience, in particular in June and September, it ventured back into the popular music arena. The successful Wilco concert in 2008 proved to doubters that the heathens wouldn't burn down the Shed and smoke the grass. Healthy endowment aside, Tangle wood needs to sell tickets and address the aging of its audience, a dilemma that confronts all institutions of opera and classical music. Aging baby boomers brought up on rock music are good candidates to appreciate the music that may have eluded them earlier.

Of course, visiting Tanglewood is to love Tanglewood, which is why it is easy to imagine fans of Wilco or James Taylor returning for an evening of Beethoven or Mozart. The green, rolling lawn which gazes out in spots on Stockbridge Bowl is tranquillity personified, and on a warm summer afternoon, the lawn fills with picnickers hours before concert time.

As Tanglewood proceeds toward its 100th anniversary, we hope more Berkshire residents will avail themselves of the pleasures that draw visitors from afar. Miss Smith and Mr. Koussevitzky placed a diamond in our midst, one made more precious but the all too short summer season when it gets its chance to shine.


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