LENOX — Call it a cultural cornucopia.
The reopening to audiences of Tanglewood, along with in-person seasons announced by Barrington Stage Company, the Berkshire Theatre Group, Jacob’s Pillow, Shakespeare & Company, the Williamstown Theatre Festival and others, signals a cautious but committed return to a semblance of normalcy, based on careful compliance with health and safety guidance.
The hope is that widespread vaccinations will overtake the spread of COVID-19 “escape variants” and a worrisome spike in cases across many states, including Massachusetts.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s announcement of its compressed six-week summer festival (July 9-Aug. 16) reflects a praiseworthy effort to diversify programming through an inclusive approach that adds a mix of 18 living composers — many Americans, women and minorities — to the standards that summer festival audiences anticipate.
The BSO management pledged to “continue its commitment to the most beloved music of the classical music canon, while also expanding its commitment to representing a diverse group of composers of our time. The 2021 Tanglewood season will spotlight both established composers well-known to BSO audiences and talented newcomers to the field whose work is a harbinger of great promise for the future of classical music.”
The orchestra’s leadership is emphasizing a continuing, deepening commitment to educational, outreach and innovative programs.
In a phone conversation this week, BSO President and CEO Mark Volpe, who is retiring June 20, explained that the “sensibilities and the sensitivities are such that, certainly going forward, we are going to continue that pattern. I think we’ll continue to evolve, but certainly, our programming reflects a significant movement toward being inclusive, being more aware of equity, but not by any means declaring victory. It’s a situation where it’s just an ongoing process, and there’s a lot to assess and think about.”
Tony Fogg, the BSO’s artistic administrator and director of Tanglewood, explained his personal programming philosophy over his 27 seasons as an “organic hallmark” reflecting the orchestra’s approach.
“There’s a certain inner logic to every program; one work relates to another whether through the lineage of tradition or the sheer dynamism of one piece juxtaposed next to another,” he pointed out in an interview. “The audience comes away with a sense of why they put those pieces together, they speak to each other in a different way and as a cumulative expression, they convey something stronger.”
He suggested that “whatever the guides about programming for this and for future summers may be, I hope that underlying principle remains intact and the thing that informs any program decision that we may make.”
In my view, the BSO has put together a summer on steroids (my term, not the BSO’s), a “Best of Tanglewood” festival that should appeal to a wide range of listeners, from connoisseurs to newcomers to classical music, and the art form certainly needs many more of those.
Volpe, whose commitment and stewardship of Tanglewood during his 23 years steering the ship merits heartfelt gratitude, has offered a parting gift to audiences. I’d submit it wasn’t easy, considering the challenges of likely shifts in allowable audience capacity, hopefully upward, and the need to ensure equity of access to tickets for the general public, as well as the donors who stepped up mightily to help the orchestra survive.
With an emphasis on three guiding principles — health, the centrality of the orchestra, and financial sustainability — Volpe conceded that there was “a limit to what we could lose, [the season] has a certain critical mass, it’s substantive and it’s doable in a summer where the pandemic is still with us.”
Tanglewood, notably its renowned summer academy, is what makes the BSO unique, Volpe emphasized.
“When we go to Tanglewood and train the next generation of musicians and we bring in people from all over, it serves the cause of music like no other summer festival in the world,” he said with justifiable pride.
We’re three months away from the opening weekend. It will be a summer like none other for all the other performing arts presenters balancing the need for safety with the pent-up desire of audiences for a renewal of artistic inspiration and for entertainment.
There’s an undercurrent of caution as we tread carefully into a brave new world where many of our old rules and assumptions no longer seem relevant.
At least, the coming summer season will provide a melody of excitement and hope.