Clarence Fanto: Follow some sage advice and attend a BSO concert

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LENOX — There's no doubt that Tanglewood has evolved into a showcase not only for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Tanglewood Music Center, its summer institute, but also for the expanded Popular Artist series and other nonclassical attractions.

That's true for the 5,000-seat Shed with its expansive lawn that can accommodate up to 13,000 more listeners, though not for the 1,200-seat Ozawa Hall, home to smaller classical ensembles, soloists and the TMC students.

The key question: How much nonclassical music should Tanglewood schedule to preserve its essential place as home of the BSO while also protecting its bottom line and seeking to broaden its audience?

A listing of the season's 13 best-attended performances, as compiled by the BSO box office, shows that only three were regular orchestra concerts — one was the annual finale, Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, and the other two, led by orchestra Music Director Andris Nelsons, featured superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma and, on opening night, pianist Lang Lang.

Granted, the season was far from typical.

The BSO's eight-week residency, along with the TMC's academy schedule, centered on a seasonlong celebration of the Leonard Bernstein centennial, with an emphasis on his stage works, including ballet, rather than his three symphonies.

Ill-timed rainstorms cut into the crowd size for some typical big-ticket draws, such as Tanglewood on Parade and at least a half dozen other concerts.

The fact that the season total of 330,599 was down only 5.5 percent from last summer's robust 350,014 total attests to the overall vibrancy of a festival created in 1937 whose core mission remains the performance of Western art music and, equally important, the training of young artists.

Inevitably, however, Tanglewood must confront changing audience tastes and the ever-growing marginalization of classical music from the broader, pop-dominated culture.

There were 15 Popular Artists events during the season, mostly during the mid-June to early July "pre-season." It's indisputable that these programs, ranging widely from classic rockers to prominent folk, jazz, cross-genre and public radio performers, attract a multigenerational audience, including many more Berkshire residents than typically attend orchestra performances.

And there's no denying the perennial popularity of James Taylor, who, at 70, continues to provide musical comfort food baked to perfection and attract more than 36,000 people over two nights — 11 percent of the entire 2018 season's attendance. He always returns the proceeds of his Fourth of July concert to Tanglewood, a generous gesture, indeed.

The past summer was a high-water mark for nonclassical presentations, BSO Managing Director Mark Volpe acknowledged, at least in his 20-year tenure. He has led the strategy of creating a 12-week schedule aimed at diversifying the musical palette at the BSO's summer festival. The shoulder-season programming helps the BSO's bottom line and jump-starts the local hospitality industry in the run-up to prime-time summer.

Whether there will be 15 events every year is uncertain, since it depends on artists' availability and the vagaries of the calendar. Volpe is clear that the goal is to make money on every show "since our mission goes beyond the BSO to include a significant investment in the future of music at the Tanglewood Music Center. Certainly, the strategy is to generate support for the orchestra's core mission and to focus on the BSO/TMC residency."

Nevertheless, as someone who has attended the vast majority of BSO concerts here over more than 40 years, I find it disheartening to see too many empty seats inside the Shed — where weather is a minor factor — for orchestra concerts, especially the dozen or so led by Nelsons, who committed five weeks to Tanglewood this year, probably a record for any music director.

With all due respect to his predecessors, I submit that Nelsons ranks as the greatest BSO music director since Serge Koussevitzsky, founder of Tanglewood. And the orchestra is on fire for him at every performance, whether it's performing film music (on a night Nelsons shared the podium with John Williams) or a challenging Shostakovich symphony.

Every Nelsons concert is a special event, and the bond he has forged with the musicians is incomparable. The honeymoon has become an enduring close relationship, even under the most challenging circumstances.

Case in point: The orchestra's just-concluded eight-city European festival tour marred by a charter-plane tarmac breakdown that nearly stranded the musicians in Paris, hours before the final event in Amsterdam.

Since the only available plane was limited to 76 passengers, rather than the 110 orchestra members plus staff booked on the canceled flight, a quick program change for music that could be performed by a smaller orchestra saved the Amsterdam concert, despite a 45-minute delay in the starting time.

"Tensions were high as we found the musicians needed for the new program, got them on the plane and sorted through the official passport and paper work necessary for the flight," according to a communique from the orchestra's media office. "They changed into concert clothes, had quick bite to eat and then performed the program of Bernstein and Beethoven without any rehearsal. It was an absolute triumph to a very long and challenging day, and a grand finale to a hugely successful 17-day tour, one of the longest the orchestra has undertaken in recent years."

The rapport between Nelsons and the musicians is unusually close. As principal cellist Blaise Dejardin told The Boston Globe from Amsterdam, "There are conductors who need to talk to explain everything they want to do ... and then there are conductors who can just conduct. Those are the best. Andris is one of those rare people who can really convey with his baton, his technique, what he wants us to do with the music. That's why it can work in this type of situation. ... We're very, very lucky to have him."

So is the Tanglewood audience, which brings us back to the attendance trends reflecting a box office shortfall for too many BSO performances.

A bottom-line question: Is the addition of so many shoulder-season shows hurting attendance at classical performances?

I doubt it — more likely, it's the diminishing interest in classical music among younger generations no longer benefiting from music education in public schools and no longer exposed to the televised advocacy of Bernstein on network TV nor artists like Ma and Itzhak Perlman, who were introduced to audiences on mostly extinct variety shows.

Nevertheless, even for novices, a Nelsons-led BSO or TMC concert is bound to be an ear-opener and an inspiration to explore further. Although the music speaks for itself, we live in a visual age, so the management has installed new, high-def screens not only for the lawn crowd, but also for the back sections of the Shed.

At his concerts, Taylor often urges the audience to attend BSO concerts. Sage advice.

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

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