Clarence Fanto: Arts and entertainment desolation in the Berkshires

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LENOX — The summer cultural landscape in the Berkshires already was barren before the Boston Symphony Orchestra's anticipated announcement on Friday that the Tanglewood season has been canceled for the first time in 75 years.

Because of COVID-19 social distancing requirements, no live BSO and Boston Pops concerts, Tanglewood Music Center student performances, no James Taylor or other popular artists such as Judy Collins, Arlo Guthrie, Patty Labelle and John Legend, no movie screenings with live music, no John Williams Film Night, no Tanglewood on Parade. No picnics on the lawn. No high school and college graduations at Tanglewood next month, as far as we know.

No young musicians honing their skills on the campus of the renowned TMC summer institute, no teens from the Boston University Tanglewood Institute, no adult cultural programs at the still-new Tanglewood Learning Institute. No visitors strolling the bucolic grounds — except by appointment during limited hours.

Health and safety come first before any reopenings involving large gatherings, typically defined as 50 or 100 and up. BSO leaders made the only decision possible after exploring crowd-limiting scenarios that just couldn't work.

Combined with the closings of Shakespeare & Company, Jacob's Pillow, the Williamtown Theatre Festival, reduced seasons starting in August on Barrington Stage and the Berkshire Theatre Group, shutdowns of our treasured museums from the Norman Rockwell Museum to the Clark and Mass MoCA, it amounts to arts and entertainment desolation.

And the economic impact on the cultural Berkshires, which used to be the calling-card nickname of the county, is shattering. Tanglewood alone generates more than $100 million for the hospitality industry and provides as many as 1,000 jobs during the season.

The BSO, deriving about half of its $107 million annual budget from earned income (meaning primarily ticket sales), is losing a combined $30 million by pulling the plug on the summer season, coupled with massive additional losses from canceled tours, the final months of the orchestra's winter season, the Boston Pops spring concerts and a Midwest tour of major campuses, as well as the demise of the July 4th fireworks celebration on the Esplanade in Boston.

The sound of silence at Tanglewood is personal to me. I was first taken there at age 5 and I've been a regular since the mid-1960s.

I agree with John Williams's comments about the mystical spirituality on the grounds, even when walking there in the off-season, as he often did in past years while working on film scores at a nearby hotel.

During a Friday phone conversation with BSO President and CEO Mark Volpe, whose dedication to Tanglewood has been a hallmark of his 23-year tenure, the discussion focused on the organization's need to keep closely connected to its audience, to raise some revenue and try to encourage patrons to donate back their tickets. That's part of a fundraising campaign through the summer to be matched dollar for dollar through the generosity of James and Kim Taylor and other major supporters.

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Volpe, emphasizing health and safety as the top priority by far, acknowledged that the closing of Tanglewood has the potential to be devastating to the region's hospitality economy. "It's been a challenging couple of months, pursuing a fundamental strategy shift since we're no longer able to share the power and impact of live music with audiences," he said.

As he transitioned into leading what's become a media company for now, Volpe outlined the daunting challenge of trying to create content by mining the orchestra's considerable digital assets. "We've had 6 million online views in just the past two months!" he exclaimed. The Boston Pops/John Williams "Summon the Heroes" video has topped the 1 million mark on YouTube.

The Tanglewood 2020 Online Festival, an effort to to replicate the sound, look and feel of the summer season through a treasure trove of new and archived performances, panel discussions, master classes and other offerings, is ambitious and, as Volpe acknowledged, "incredibly challenging as a business model, there's so much free content on the web. So, we're experimenting for the first time with a paywall for some material."

The schedule, available at tanglewood.org, looks impressively curated.

"But we can't replicate the beauty and spiritual aspects of Tanglewood," he pointed out. "As we blend new and archival content, we'll add the visual element of the grounds."

It's all about keeping Tanglewood alive, Volpe conceded. "It's a grand experiment; we wish it weren't necessary and it's devastating on so many levels."

The BSO musicians unanimously voted unanimously for 25 percent pay cuts through August and there have been some staff furloughs, "an incredibly excruciating process," he said. Volpe, taking a 50 percent cut in his base salary, has agreed to postpone his planned February retirement for up to six months, through Tanglewood's 2021 season, pending selection of his successor by the trustees.

With an uncertain timetable for resuming public performances, the BSO management leader commented that "I can't imagine how emotional it will be to reconnect with live audiences. Cultural survivors will be different. I don't know how and when people will feel comfortable congregating in large crowds. We're better-positioned than many cultural institutions so there will be a BSO in the future, there's so much resilience and commitment. But will it be a little different? Yes."

The summer of 2020 will be unrecognizable around here in many respects. But the health of our neighbors must be protected, even as we hold out hope for the future health of the Berkshires' cherished cultural centerpiece.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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