At Tanglewood's new Learning Institute, music is a gateway to ideas

BSO violist Michael Zaretsky and pianist Yang Bao test the acoustics in Studio E, the largest of the four-building Linde Center for Music and Learning, home of the Tanglewood Learning Institute, opening in June..

LENOX — There is apparently nothing like it, nothing as big, nothing as multi-faceted.

Tanglewood, for 82 years a bastion of classical music performance, composition and study, is voyaging into the realm of music as an aspect of the way people live, think and aspire to a richer understanding of life. The Tanglewood Learning Institute, opening this summer, promises lectures, demonstrations and performances relating music to the larger culture.

And not just for musical cognoscenti. In the institute's $33 million, four-building complex, 11 series of events - most tied to music scheduled for Tanglewood performance that week - are aimed at a general public with a degree of intellectual curiosity.

Speakers such as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and playwright Tom Stoppard, along with featured artists from Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood Music Center concerts, will take discussions well beyond the range of classical music itself.

It is rare, and probably unprecedented, for a major symphony orchestra to sponsor a wide-ranging educational component on the grounds of a summer home — 524 acres in Tanglewood's case — in the country.

The nearest equivalent, at least in the United States, is the Aspen and Chautauqua music festivals. Both have country settings and educational components. But the educational activities are independently produced - Aspen's before the music season, Chautauqua's concurrent with it - and neither festival has a major symphony orchestra in residence. Concerts are presented by students and faculty.

"What makes Tanglewood unique," says Anthony Fogg, BSO artistic administrator and director of Tanglewood, "is the fact that this orchestra is living in the community. And that's a huge difference between a lot of other music festivals."

The range of the 11 TLI programs, which span four weeks, is dizzying: from "The Big Idea," exploring ideas of our time, and "Cinematics," in collaboration with the Berkshire International Film Festival, to an eight-day string quartet series with the Juilliard Quartet and TMC students. Other programs are based on the TMC performance of Wagner's complete "Die Walkure," John Williams' Film Night and the TMC Festival of Contemporary Music.

In "The Big Idea" series, Albright will discuss nation-building in the 21st century. Also in that series, Goodwin's topic is leadership and power in America. In a "Meet the Makers" series, Stoppard and conductor-composer Andre Previn will join in discussion of their "Penelope," to be premiered by celebrated soprano Renee Fleming and the Emerson String Quartet.

Fleming and baritone Rod Gilfry will discuss their world premiere of Kevin Puts's "The Brightness of Light," an orchestral song cycle based on letters between artist Georgia O'Keeffe and photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Other presenters include BSO music director Andris Nelsons, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and cabaret artist Meow Meow.

Almost from the start, in 1937, Tanglewood had a strong educational component. In 1940, the founding of the music center (originally Berkshire Music Center) realized Serge Koussevitzky's vision of an academy where students, composers and professional orchestra musicians could collaborate on advancement of their art through performance and study.

The opening of Seiji Ozawa Hall in 1994, replacing the outmoded Theater-Concert Hall, gave the TMC a more modern performing space, along with an improved venue for touring professional artists such as Fleming and the Juilliard.

Still, something seemed missing.

"There were a lot of things that have been taking place at Tanglewood on a very high level that were just not available to the broader public," Fogg said in a telephone interview. "These were mainly activities focused around the TMC, and so this [TLI, the learning institute] gives us the opportunity to open up and contextualize those for a broader public. It was just a sort of a rich opportunity sitting there. Somehow I always thought that we were never quite realizing this artistic capital sitting there before our eyes."

Strategic planning for upgrading of this and other BSO programs and facilities began in November 2012. The initial idea, Fogg said, was to use existing facilities such as the aging Theater-Concert Hall for the project, but they soon appeared insufficient. Sitting in a Tanglewood focus group brain-storming ideas, Fogg recalled, he burst out, "Tanglewood Learning Institute!"

The seed was planted.

As the idea grew, the four-building Linde Center for Music and Learning was designed and built as a home for the learning institute and related music center activities. The full cost of the project, including other campus improvements and a $12 million performance endowment, totals $64 million.

Equipped with year-round heating, the building complex will be available for off-season use by the BSO, Berkshire organizations and commercial interests. Fogg said director Sue Elliott has already received inquiries, though nothing has been scheduled yet.

Fogg echoes a statement by BSO managing director Mark Volpe that the institute is "inspired in part by a wider cultural evolution towards learning and participatory activities that complement the concert experience." An observer might wonder if, in a time of texting, tweets and general twaddle, such a widespread hunger exists.

But existing Tanglewood programs such as preconcert talks, the Talks and Walks series and forums, like those for last summer's Leonard Bernstein centenary, show that there is an audience for greater musical literacy. The institute builds on these previous programs.

In any case, the institute proves that a symphony orchestra need not be a museum for established masterworks and gray-haired audiences, as some critics contend. New music has a place — note the premieres and Festival of Contemporary Music — but the point of masterworks is to connect us with the best in our heritage and ourselves.

Who can hear Bach's B minor Mass or Beethoven's Ninth Symphony without being uplifted? Greater understanding leads to greater involvement and enjoyment.

"And the physical context of all this is a setting of breathtaking beauty — a setting which somehow enlivens the senses, fires the imagination, opens other dimensions of perception, offers a place of calm or spiritual respite," as Fogg says in BSO publicity materials.

And, he adds: "There is no other place which, to my knowledge at least, offers this unique blend of qualities."

And: "We believe deeply in the power of music to make a difference in people's lives. We need this now more than ever. TLI gives us the tools to share this belief with those with open minds and hearts."          

The sentiment echoes Koussevitzky's during the launch of his music center. Its central purpose, he said, consists "in breaking down artificial barriers between the `initiated' and the `non-initiated'" and "making the music language as accessible to the general understanding and emotion as is the spoken language."