BSO ready to write a new chapter in its history with Pittsfield
PITTSFIELD — For most of the world, April 15, 1912, is the day the Titanic sank. But in Pittsfield, it's the day the Boston Symphony Orchestra finally came to town.
"The Boston Symphony orchestra, conducted by Max Fielder [sic], made its first appearance in Pittsfield last night. Music lovers thronged the Colonial theater on South street. They came not only from the city, but from towns for miles around," an article in the April 16, 1912, edition of The Berkshire Evening Eagle reported.
They watched conductor Max Fiedler lead players through a program that included soprano Florence Hinkle and works by Weber, Beethoven and Puccini, among others. By show time, the BSO hype train had been rolling for weeks. A March 25 announcement in the newspaper billed the concert as the "greatest musical event ever given in Western Massachusetts." This was 25 years before Tanglewood was established as the BSO's summer home, and locals didn't know when the orchestra, which was founded in 1881, would be visiting next.
"It was not only as a Massachusetts, but as a national institution, that the Boston symphony was welcomed," the April 16 article said.
Thanks to Tanglewood, the BSO arrives in the Berkshires every summer now. But that doesn't mean the renowned Lenox festival has reached all of its neighbors, or even some of the ones right next door in Pittsfield. This summer, the BSO is trying to change that with a variety of new initiatives, two of which are based in Pittsfield. For the first time, the Berkshire Athenaeum will offer a pass for most BSO concerts that allows a library cardholder to redeem four lawn tickets to one BSO performance day per summer. One pass is available at the library per concert day.
"We're thrilled to add it to the very popular 'museum pass' program here at the Athenaeum," Berkshire Athenaeum Director Alex Reczkowski wrote in an email.
The second is "Tanglewood in the City: Pittsfield," an event in the Pittsfield Common on Friday, July 19, that will include a live video transmission of that night's Andris Nelsons-conducted program at Tanglewood on a 15-foot-by-27-foot screen. The event is based on a similar annual gathering at the Boston Common that will return on the 19th for its fourth edition. But with the Pittsfield community event, the BSO is trying to conquer a different distance than the miles separating its year-round Eastern Massachusetts base from Lenox, a figurative one that prevents some in the community from considering Tanglewood's grounds as a possible destination.
"I think it's all about breaking down barriers," BSO Chief Operating Officer Alexandra Fuchs said of "Tanglewood in the City." "I think it's something that we've thought about: how we can really connect with and be a part of the community. It's important to meet the community where they are and not just assume everyone will come to Tanglewood."
In planning the free Pittsfield event, Fuchs said that the BSO considered "Berkshire Blueprint 2.0," the 1Berkshire-helmed economic development plan that was released in February. Fuchs noted challenges in the creative economy of "engaging local residents, overcoming perceptions, transportation barriers."
"This is a way to really address that," she said. "It's also a chance for us to highlight the work of other nonprofits and cultural organizations."
Starting at 5 p.m., "Tanglewood in the City" will include performances by the Eagles Community Band Brass Ensemble, the Barrington Stage MTC Choral Group and the Boston University Tanglewood Institute; a Norman Rockwell Museum-run virtual reality experience involving Rockwell's "Four Freedoms"; artisanal work with Hancock Shaker Village; games hosted by the Berkshire Family YMCA; an "Instrument Playground" provided by the Boston Symphony Association of Volunteers; and culinary options from Main Street Hospitality, Barrington Brewery, Mad Jack's BBQ and SoCo Creamery. At 8 p.m., the video transmission will begin, showing Nelsons guiding the BSO through Debussy, Ravel and other composers' work.
"The city of Pittsfield is absolutely thrilled to welcome Tanglewood for this dynamic event — and the first of its kind — in the heart of our downtown at The Common," Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer said in a statement.
Though BSO musician Cathy Basrak will give some opening remarks, no orchestra members or Tanglewood Music Center fellows will perform at the event. When asked if the BSO might hold chamber concerts with TMC fellows or BSO musicians at the Common in the future, Fuchs said that that wasn't on the table at the moment.
"I don't know if doing something on the Common in the summer, the logistics around it, if it's doable. Even for this, I know there are some concerns about amplification and what will be able to have be heard, so it hasn't come up," she said.
For many BSO musicians, the intense Tanglewood performance slate requires them to limit engagements beyond the borders of the bucolic site, and TMC fellows are similarly occupied, according to Fuchs. This is perhaps one of the reasons why live BSO concerts in Pittsfield have been uncommon in the decades since Fiedler and company descended on The Colonial. Between 1912 and 1970, the BSO's digital performance history archive lists no Pittsfield shows, though the archive doesn't capture every performance involving a BSO member; in 1916, for instance, The Eagle reported that the Boston Symphony Orchestral Club played at Pittsfield High School that December, bringing conductor Ernst Schmidt and company to the city.
In the early 1970s, the Boston Symphony Chamber Players performed at Berkshire Community College and the Berkshire Museum, and Miss Hall's School programs were held during the '70s, '80s and '90s, according to the archive. More recently, the BSO presented free Community Chamber Concerts annually from 2013-2017 at The Colonial and Barrington Stage Company's Boyd-Quinson Mainstage. In 2018, the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts hosted the event in North Adams; Fuchs said a performance in Pittsfield was in the works for this year but fell through, and a subsequent date at The Darrow School in New Lebanon, N.Y., was canceled due to weather.
Though there haven't been many BSO concerts in Pittsfield, that doesn't mean the organization hasn't made outreach efforts to the city and other municipalities in the past. Free lawn tickets for people 17 and under have been available for years, and open rehearsals have attracted numerous area families to the site, among other programs. Still, transportation can be an obstacle to Tanglewood trips. The closest Berkshire Regional Transit Authority bus stop to the Main Gate is about a mile-and-a-half down the road. Fuchs said that the organization is considering transportation solutions, including something akin to the Pittsfield-Pillow Express shuttle bus that Jacob's Pillow Dance has been running since its 2017 season. Jacob's Pillow Dance Director of Community Engagement Thasia Giles said that the shuttle has "definitely been going more steady this season," stopping at five Pittsfield locations, such as the Berkshire Athenaeum and the Tyler Street Lab.
"The short answer is we don't have anything right now, and it's something we have talked about," Fuchs said of a direct bus option. "And we can see if there's a way to test it out and pilot it and offer it if it would help, but I guess coming to Pittsfield as a first step might be helpful so that it would encourage people to even be willing to get on a bus."
If rain is in the forecast, "Tanglewood in the City" will be moved indoors to First United Methodist Church. That decision will be made early in the week leading up to the event, according to Fuchs.
"It won't be the same as sitting outside, but at least you can still offer it and have a screen projected there," she said.
Either way, Fuchs hopes that the BSO's Pittsfield event will stress to the city's residents that Tanglewood "belongs to them," ultimately prompting newcomers to visit the orchestra's summer turf.
"Tanglewood is as much theirs as anybody who travels and comes to Tanglewood," she said.
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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