Tanglewood's Koussevitzky Music Shed turns 75



Tanglewood -- which opens its gates tonight for a Melissa Etheridge performance -- is commemorating a 75th anniversary again this summer. This time, it marks the opening of the Shed.

Tanglewood's 2012 season celebrated the first Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts held in 1937 on the grounds of what had been a family-owned estate in Stockbridge. The 210-acre property had just been donated by its owners, Mrs. Gorham Brooks and her aunt, Mary Aspinwall Tappan, to help realize Music Director Serge Koussevitzky's dream of a summer home for the BSO and a training institute for advanced students.

But after the famous rainstorm that drenched players and 5,000 concertgoers at an Aug. 5, 1937, performance held under a tent, Berkshire Symphonic Festival patrons led by the group's formidable, hard-driving president, Gertrude Robinson Smith, raised funds for a permanent, waterproof structure.

Robinson Smith had made the most of the storm, telling those present: "Now do you see why we must have a permanent building for these concerts?" She raised $30,000 on the spot, and $60,000 more in a few months.

The hastily but solidly constructed Shed, which sits on an acre and a half of land, was designed by prominent architect Eliel Saarinen, and modified to make it more affordable by Stockbridge engineer Joseph Franz. It opened on Aug. 4, 1938, a month ahead of schedule and $10,000 under budget.

It was built by a local contractor, Graves and Hemmes of Great Barrington, with metal work supplied by Bethlehem Steel, under contracts totaling $115,768 -- half of Saarinen's original estimate but $1.8 million in today's dollars, according to the Consumer Price Index, or $20 million when rising labor costs are factored in.

According to BSO archives, more than 150,000 feet of Douglas fir was ordered from the Northwest for 66,000 square feet of roofing covered with three layers of felt and asphalt. An additional 15,000 square feet of lumber was used for the sides and other construction.

Carol Dwight Bain, 90, a BSO overseer emerita, remembers watching the construction of the Shed and hearing the first set of concerts as a teenager.

"I only knew her [Robinson Smith] to say hello to," Bain said from her summer home in Biddeford Falls, Maine. "But my father, Harry Dwight, knew her as a member and treasurer of the Berkshire Symphonic Festival Board. She was a very interesting woman, well-traveled, who moved in social circles. My father always found her very difficult to work with."

Bain explained that in the summer of ‘38, while the BSO owned the Tanglewood grounds, the Symphonic Festival was responsible for raising the money and supervising construction of the Shed.

"Growing up in Stockbridge, with my father's position, we followed it very closely, watched it being built," she said. "The Shed was a local marvel."

"It was always my impression that Robinson Smith and Koussevitzky were friends," she added, "but George Edman and George Judd, then the BSO manager, took care of the nuts and bolts." Edman later became managing editor of The Berkshire Eagle.

"It was very informal, everyone knew everyone else," Bain recalled. "I went to all those 1938 concerts; we would watch all the formally dressed people coming into the boxes, wearing long dresses or tuxedos. Before the first concert, Koussevitzky said he was very pleased with the acoustics."

Bain, who said she has endowed several seats in the Shed, last visited Tanglewood five summers ago to help compile historic exhibits on display at the Visitors Center. She acknowledged the dramatic change in the appearance not only of the now much larger campus but also of the concertgoers.

To mark the 75th anniversary of the Shed, the BSO is mounting an archival exhibit in the Visitors Center at the Main House and will install plaques on the Shed's exterior honoring the contributions of Robinson Smith, Franz and Edna BettsTalbot, who donated the structure's original acoustical canopy.

The exhibit will offer "a behind the scenes view of the extraordinary people and circumstances responsible for creating one of this country's most iconic outdoor venues for summer music performances," a BSO announcement stated. It will include a multimedia presentation of Robinson Smith's speech dedicating the facility, along with a slideshow of historic photos and documents.

Also on view with be contrasting views of the Saarinen model for the Shed, a fixture at the Visitors Center for years, and the Franz model, on loan from the Stockbridge Library. His less-costly model made construction possible after Saarinen withdrew from the project. The Visitors Center will also display one of Koussevitzky's capes, worn en route to performances.

A new acoustical canopy replaced the original orchestra shell in 1959 at a cost of $50,000. In 1988, the 5,100-seat venue was renamed the Koussevitzsky Music Shed to mark its 50th anniversary. The BSO's master plan for Tanglewood, contingent on a $70 million capital campaign, includes a new roof and other Shed renovations.

Robinson Smith (1881-1963), known as "Gertie," has been described as a "tornado of energy." She remained with the Berkshire Symphonic Festival until 1955, when the corporation was dissolved and ownership of the Shed was transferred to the BSO.

"I think that she was really the hero in all of this," Tony Fogg, the BSO's artistic administrator, told The Eagle last year. "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."

To contact Clarence Fanto:
or (413) 637-2551.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto

Concert lineup ...

As the iconic Shed marks its 75th anniversary, tonight marks the opening weekend at Tanglewood with a series of concerts by popular artists and the Boston Pops. Tickets are still available. Here's a glance at the weekend slate:

n Melissa Etheridge, with special guest Eric Hutchinson, tonight at 7.

n The Boston Pops performs a Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration, Saturday night at 7.

n Joan Baez and the Indigo Girls, Sunday at 2:30 p.m.


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