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Clarence Fanto: After 25 years, the director of the Tanglewood Music Center is retiring. What were the high points and surprises?

Ellen Highstein speaks at dais

Ellen Highstein, retiring as Tanglewood Music Center director, delivers her final address to incoming TMC students on July 7.

LENOX — The Tanglewood Music Center, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s pre-eminent advanced-study academy for promising young musicians, is widely viewed as a crown jewel. But even jewels may need polishing on occasion.

Currently, about 40 percent of BSO musicians are alumni, and up to one-third of players in the nation’s other major orchestras have studied at the TMC, which has 140 students each summer.

It was Tanglewood founder and BSO conductor Serge Koussevitzky who set up the institute (first known as the Berkshire Music Center) in 1940 as part of his central vision for the orchestra’s new summer home.

In 1997, Ellen Highstein — with formidable credentials as a composer and music educator — was brought in as TMC director following a controversial leadership shakeup orchestrated by BSO Music Director Seiji Ozawa. She was appointed by Ozawa and the incoming Managing Director Mark Volpe, who retired in June 2021.

Highstein is retiring after directing the TMC’s annual Festival of Contemporary Music (FCM) opening on Thursday. Last January, the BSO’s new president and CEO, Gail Samuel, appointed Asadour Santourian to the new position of vice president, Tanglewood Music Center and Learning. For 18 years, he had been vice president for artistic administration and artistic adviser at the esteemed Aspen Music Festival and School in Colorado.

I had an informal conversation with Highstein on the Tanglewood grounds last weekend. Excerpts follow, lightly edit for length:

Q: Was your resignation last January on your timetable?

A: Pretty much. I had thought that I’d resign at the end of last summer, but it was a very abbreviated and miniaturized season, so we decided I’d like to go out after a full summer. But the work putting the season together is mostly done by January and after that, it becomes an administrative task they didn’t need me for. So, it seemed efficient I would take my retirement then, but come out of retirement and spend my summer here, definitely overseeing the FCM and providing a certain amount of old-time gravitas for the new people. I think my timing was absolutely right for me, and probably right for the institution.

The musical world has moved on rapidly, and with new technologies, it’s time for somebody else who has a vision that includes all aspects of careers now and of making music as a young person.

Q: Why was there such a major TMC shakeup in 1997?

A: As he got older and his interest in the TMC grew beyond his nostalgia for his own Fellowship days, Seiji Ozawa grew more as a teacher and wanted to have a bigger hand and things to go a different direction. I came in to consult and made some recommendations more aligned with his thinking, and he liked what I had suggested. Part of Koussevitzky’s vision was passing down the BSO’s acquired wisdom and expertise, an opportunity for these young people to live a life of professional music making at the highest level for their eight weeks here.

The unsaid thing was that this was going to keep the BSO alive in a way that many orchestras aren’t, keeping them invigorated by turning the symphony itself into a teaching academy for two months. There’s nothing more thrilling and enlivening than working with young people in your field who remind you why you started this in the first place. Now, about half the orchestra is regularly involved with the TMC in one way or another. The relationship has become really wonderful, to mutual benefit.

Q: What makes the summer here so distinctive for the students, known as fellows, many of whom trained at very competitive, hierarchical and goal-oriented music conservatories?

A: I like to believe this is a place of collaborative work, the kids can listen to each other and spend time thinking about what they’re doing, not working so much toward specific goals like the next achievement, to give themselves a bit of a timeout from that. They deserve a minute to think more adventurously, to screw up, and to have the freedom to fail if they need to, and have more elbow room to dream, not just about themselves but about what they can offer to life in the community.

Q: What will you miss most?

A: The regular interaction with extraordinary young musicians whom I’ve been lucky enough to get to know and to see how the field is changing in their eyes. It’s been an incredible adventure.

Q: What were the high points of your tenure?

A: I’ve been lucky enough to be in a position where every day had some high points. Not everyone can say that. But as invigorating as it was, there were also 18-hour days, so it was intense. At a certain point in one’s life, it’s OK not to be quite so intense! But the amount of reward this job entailed was really pretty remarkable.

Q: Do you feel you successfully fulfilled your mission?

A: Any enterprise, no matter how wonderful it is, deserves looking at every year to see if there’s something that could be better, more interesting, something that could be expanded on. Highlights included having the Mark Morris Dance Group here, doing live staged operas with James Levine, and collaborations with other groups like Mass Audubon. For students, listening to the BSO or a guest artist and changing the way people feel about their own work and what they might be able to contribute.

Q: Are you optimistic and hopeful that the best of all this will be preserved?

A: Change has to happen, and I wish this place nothing but wondrous times to come.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com or on Twitter @BE_cfanto.

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