An early 'happy hour' with Sue Elliott

Tanglewood Learning Institute director shares her vision for the new programming expansion


LENOX — With performances, fundraisers and other functions often held at night, finding time to socialize can be difficult for those in the arts world. But Sue Elliott, a longtime member of that realm, has happened upon a solution.

"I have these groups of friends in almost every city where I've lived where our happy hour is actually breakfast," Elliott said on a recent Friday morning.

The Tanglewood Learning Institute (TLI) director's artistic interests have led her to major cities across North America: Toronto, Montreal, Los Angeles, Houston, Seattle and, now, Boston. But with TLI set to begin its inaugural summer season on Saturday, June 22, with the String Quartet MasterPass and present a host of other programs following a June 28-July 1 opening weekend, Elliott is prepared to be spending more time in and around the Boston Symphony Orchestra's bucolic Lenox campus. She's looking forward to meeting more locals.

"This is my debut happy hour with other people in the Berkshires," Elliott said before ordering a bacon-and-cheese omelette with sourdough toast and tea at Electra's Cafe.

Elliott is renting an apartment for the summer near the Route 20 establishment in Lenox. Her full-time home is in Charlestown, so she's gotten to know the Mass Pike well since she was appointed to helm the new programming initiative in August 2018. (Luckily, she said she loves driving.) Eventually, Elliott anticipates keeping a year-round apartment in the Berkshires, too. The county's rural charms evoke her youth a few hours outside of Toronto.

"I crave nature," she said, later adding that her German shepherd, Lilly, will enjoy seeing some more grass after months in Charlestown.

Mountains and lakes aren't what compelled Elliott to leave her post at The Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto for her new position, though. She saw an opportunity to join a classical music world titan that was in the beginning stages of formulating what she calls the "wonderful and wild aspiration" of TLI, a programming expansion at Tanglewood unlike any other over the past eight decades. Like the four-building Linde Center for Music and Learning that will host many of its sessions, TLI is backed by the $64 million "Tanglewood Forever" fundraising campaign.

"I sensed that the BSO hadn't, at least for many years, had a very formalized, wide-ranging, robust adult engagement, adult learning, adult programming other than concerts, which are our mainstay, but not enough any more," Elliott said.

She felt that her experiences at Houston Grand Opera, Seattle Opera and The Royal Conservatory prepared her to take on the endeavor.

"Most of the work that TLI is doing and that we see coming in the short to medium term are things that I've done elsewhere, but not with the platform and resources of the BSO-proper," said Elliott, who is also a classically trained pianist and clarinetist.

This summer, TLI will present more than 140 events, including "The Big Idea" speaking series at Ozawa Hall with Madeleine K. Albright, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Daniel Shapiro; OpenStudio master classes with Andris Nelsons, Yo-Yo Ma and others leading Tanglewood Music Center fellows; "Meet the Makers" talks with artists such as Tom Stoppard and Joan Tower; "Full Tilt" performances; ShopTalks; weekend immersion experiences; a film series in collaboration with the Berkshire International Film Festival and "Focal Point" Saturday morning visual art classes in partnership with IS183 Art School of the Berkshires. Music threads through nearly all of the programming, but TLI and the BSO have a broader cultural impact in mind, too, according to Elliott.

"We bring people together to create a more civil society," she said. "It goes beyond just learning more about Mozart and how Mozart felt in his time, how that musical experience felt in his time, and what he was saying about society and what it tells us about our times now. It goes well beyond that. We know that the BSO is an expert at bringing people together for these incredible shared experiences, and I want to deepen that and expand that."

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Listening is integral to fostering that civility.

"I think listening — the art, the act of — is disappearing: listening respectfully, listening carefully, in society. So, what is it about the time that we have together, whether it's a concert-proper or a TLI program or something that our education department is doing with kids, that can work towards that more civil society?" Elliott said.

Classical music won't be the only genre explored.

"As TLI evolves, we will increase the amount of connection points for all kinds of music," Elliott said. "So, you'll have seen a very subtle shift perhaps between the February announcement and some of the ads that are running now. In February, we talked about classical music and the human spirit and all of those kinds of things, and I'm slowly dropping the word 'classical' not to dishonor the incredible legacy of the BSO and all that they've contributed to Western European classical music, but to make sure that there's room for all kinds of music in what we do."

Elliott anticipates that collaborations with the Berkshire International Film Festival and IS183 will continue during the traditional Tanglewood off-season, and other sessions will combine multiple art forms.

"My goal would be to always have multiple arts represented in whatever that program is," Elliott said.

Sessions won't be exclusive to the Berkshires. While TLI will host much of its programming in the Linde Center, it is independent of that complex, Elliott stressed. Programs in Boston during fall 2019 are in the works, and online learning classes are set to debut in 2020, according to a Tanglewood press release. In the future, TLI may also work off-campus with local organizations, according to Elliott.

"Anything is possible. I will share that my exclusive focus since I started in September has been on the summer because we have to get that right, and that is necessarily in our inaugural summer at the Linde Center and on the Tanglewood campus. We anticipate announcing our fall/winter/spring activities in July," Elliott said.

The TLI director never expected to become so immersed in education. Though her parents were both high school teachers and her grandfather ran a one-room schoolhouse, her initial experience as an instructor — running private clarinet lessons — wasn't inspiring.

"I'm not good at that. And when I'm not good at something, I'm actually miserable about it, except for bowling," she said. "I love bowling because I'm really terrible at it, and I love it because of that."

Elliott was a musician first and foremost. She earned a master of music from University of Southern California in 1998 after attending McGill University and University of Toronto. She only plays piano now; an injury led to her arms and hands falling asleep while she was playing clarinet. At Houston Grand Opera, her first job was as a stage manager. She subsequently moved into the learning and community engagement world, eventually commissioning the world's first mariachi opera as well as blues performances, expanding opera's scope in the process. It wasn't a straight path to her current field, but her desire to learn was a constant.

"Because I've always been super curious, sometimes to a fault, that has allowed me a certain empathy with audiences and really set me on the course of developing transformative learning experiences for people from all walks of life," she said, "learning about music, about us, about society and about each other, most importantly."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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