New building, programs but many of the same patrons for Tanglewood

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It was a Berkshire milestone: Already a colossus on the Berkshires' summer music scene, Tanglewood emerged in 2019 as a year-round cultural and educational center.

The opening of the Tanglewood Learning Institute, housed in the sleek new $33 million Linde Center for Music and Culture, represented a broad expansion into activities designed to appeal to a general audience along with traditional concertgoers. An ambitious summer season of about 140 events is being followed by an ongoing fall-winter-spring season on a more modest scale.

Music retains its primacy in the festival that Koussevitzky built. Indeed, much of the Learning Institute's summer session consisted of public lectures, master classes, films and demonstrations built around programming by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood Music Center.

Andris Nelsons, for example, led a class on conducting; the Juilliard String Quartet spent a weeklong residency working with Music Center students. Classes led by superstars Yo-Yo Ma and Renee Fleming delighted audiences while giving students practical advice. Well-known lecturers such as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin spoke on national and world affairs, sometimes only tangentially related to music.

Tanglewood, in other words, took on the Netflix-iPhone-celebrity age. And it did it by focusing on the adult-education market readily available in the Berkshire retirement and second-home community.

(Let's get roles straight: the Tanglewood Music Center is the academy for advanced musical studies. The Tanglewood Learning Institute is the public program of cultural studies. The four-building Linde Center complex, complete with a new caf , is a showplace in its own right. Now, got it?)

Despite the possibility of new classical-music audiences, the summer's two landmark musical events, both conducted by Nelsons, suggested where the general audience's true love lies. One was the BSO's world premiere of Kevin Puts' commissioned "The Brightness of Light," an enthralling setting, with projections, of correspondence between Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. The other was a three-part concert performance of Wagner's "Die Walkure" by the Music Center Orchestra with an outstanding professional cast headed by Christine Goerke as Brunnhilde.

In the Shed, rows of empty seats greeted both events. Other BSO concerts, unless they had a star soloist, met a similar welcome.

A look at the season attendance figures tells the same story, writ larger. In the grand total of 344,140 box office patrons (which included about 14,000 for the Learning Center) reported by the BSO, only two classical concerts made it into the top 10: Yo-Yo Ma's Bach recital (No. 3 at 12,766) and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (No. 9 at 7,846).

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James Taylor, as usual, led the roll call of favorites. He had the Nos. 1 and 2 programs, each topping out at over 18,000. All the other top 10 attractions were either Popular Artists like Taylor or Boston Pops. Minus the TLI's 14,000, the grand total of 344,140 was flat from last year.

On paper, the Yo-Yo Ma recital looked like a loser: a lone cellist on the stage of the 5,000-seat, open-sided Shed, playing Bach's six suites for unaccompanied cello — music of the most intimate quality — all at one sitting lasting over two hours.

What was the response? Nearly 13,000 attended.

The power of Bach? Or star power? Either way, Ma was at the center. He followed the concert with a "day of action" on the Pittsfield Common, making tables with and for community organizations. The concert-plus-action format is integral to "The Bach Project," a program he is taking to 36 locations across the world.

Back home, Tanglewood also furthered its effort to forge closer ties with the Berkshire community by launching an annual HD simulcast of a BSO concert on the Pittsfield Common, replicating simulcasts to the Boston Common. Other outreach gestures included family-friendly events on the festival grounds and collaborations with Berkshire organizations such as the Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary.

Much else, of course, happened during 2019 on the Berkshire music scene. Of the events I heard — and there were many I didn't hear — the Berkshire Opera Festival's production of Donizetti's "Don Pasquale" delivered laughter fraught with musical pleasures. It was first-rate singing combined with imaginative staging to create an irresistible show, despite the Mahaiwe's cramped stage.

Two soloists who appeared with the Berkshire Symphony also attracted particular notice.

Both vocally and dramatically, baritone Philip Lima brought a humorous, homespun yet heartfelt spark to eight of Copland's folksy "Old American Songs." Director Ronald Feldman topped off the all-American program by the student-professional orchestra with a worthy revival of Howard Hanson's "Romantic" Symphony.     The next program featured principal cellist Nathaniel Parke as soloist in the world premiere of Allen Shawn's Cello Concerto No. 2. The general understatement of the piece disguised Parke's mastery of the difficult solo part.

Excellence comes in all sizes.


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