By Ian Keown
It might seem odd that what first impressed me about the annual summer festival at Tanglewood in Massachusetts was the parking.
I arrived there by car after a two-hour drive up the Taconic Parkway only to become enmeshed in a stream of cars on the outskirts of the festival’s hometown, Lenox. That’s it, I decided – I’ll miss the overture. But the briskly efficient attendants directed scores masses of vehicles to vacant spots and I walked into the park-like grounds while the musicians were still tuning up. Tanglewood, I decided, was something special — and it’s even more special today.
Officially the Boston Symphony Festival at Tanglewood, it was one of the first places I was eager to visit after I arrived in the U.S.A., back in the Sixties.
As a music lover and travel writer I’ve been lucky to visit many of the great classical festivals in Europe and the U.S.A. but there’s nothing quite like this annual marathon of concerts and recitals. Begin with that magical setting: meadows and lawns interspersed with flower beds and overflowing planters, set against a backdrop of the Berkshire Mountains. The trees alone set spirits soaring – trees by the thousand, fir and sycamore, hickory and hemlock, four species of oak, many of them were planted when Wagner was still composing Parsifal.
During the performances, the lawns themselves serve as the “auditorium” of choice for much of the audience, who park themselves on folding chairs or sprawl on blankets, enjoying their picnic baskets and absorbing sublime music beneath the matinee sun or the evening stars. Yes, it sometimes rains, which is why a fan shaped timber structure known as The Shed was constructed a few years after the original tent used back in the Thirties.
The original 210 acres of the Tanglewood Estate was donated to the BSO in 1936 by two heiresses in honor of the renowned Serge Koussevitzky, then the orchestra’s music director. Over the span of those 75 years, the grounds have grown to more than 500 acres and the festival has expanded incrementally from concerts only and only on weekends to performances several nights a week. On some weekends, a diligent visitor could take in as many as four events in a single day – open rehearsals, recitals, chamber music, jazz concerts, symposia and lectures or a guided nature walks. There are also educational programs for kids and occasional workshops combining music with yoga. Today’s programming is boldly eclectic, effortlessly embracing classics and pops, jazz and folk in one seamless season, from Bach and Beethoven to Birtwhistle and Epstein (the latter duo part of yet another annual attraction, the Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music). The 75th anniversary season will also introduce eight premieres, several of the new works commissioned by the orchestra.
The 75th season, from June 22 to September 22, rolls out a Who’s Who of legends — classical performers like Yo-Yo Ma, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Christophe von Dohnanyi — plus a roster of pop or crossover stars, among them, Bernadette Peters, Diana Krall, Chris Botti, Prairie Home Companion’s Garrison Keillor and James Taylor , making his 21st appearance at Tanglewood.
The keynote 75th Celebration concert (7/14) showcases a gala of stars, some of them announced in advance, others kept under wraps for surprise cameo appearances. The great American soprano Jessye Norman will be one of the guests (8/18) for an 80th Birthday Celebration for composer/conductor John Williams — yes, that John Williams, the one who wrote the score for Star Wars and who has been a Tanglewood regular for 33 years as a conductor of the Boston Pops orchestra. The Pops’ current conductor, Keith Lockhart, will lead another concert with the potential to attain legendary status — “Gershwin and Friends” (8/21), with Broadway luminaries Maureen McGovern and Brian Stokes Mitchell performing classic American musical and popular songs.
Remarkably, even in this day and age, you can still enjoy the wonders of Tanglewood for as little as $19, lawn admission (children 17 and under get in free). Top seats for regular concerts in the Koussevitzky Music Shed reach $117. With such reasonable prices, Tanglewood attracts an impressive 300,000 or so concertgoers each year and the festival pumps around $60 million into the local economy (probably one reason why the locals tolerate the traffic).
But beyond the music-making and dining options, an alfresco summer festival should be pleasurable on multiple levels, including matters visitors take for granted. One of the strong points of Tanglewood (and scarcely noted by audiences) is the purring efficiency of the place, the attention to detail. Take a thoroughly unmusical subject like trash, for example. There are probably few music festivals where you could call the administrative offices and get an answer to how many trash bins are deployed for each event; call the people at Tanglewood, on the other hand, and you get the full lowdown: 20 trash bins on wheels, 20 recycle totes, 40 trash can containers, 2 large roll-off recycling containers and a trash compactor for on-site collection. Ditto parking: 40 to 50 paid attendants supervising 5,000 parking spaces spread over 16 lots.
To paraphrase Gilbert and Sullivan, Tanglewood is the very model of a modern music festival.
Contact: www.tanglewood.org or call 888-266-1200.
Ian Keown is currently a contributing writer for Caribbean Travel & Life. Over the past 30-odd years his byline has appeared in Travel & Leisure (as a contributing editor), Gourmet (as contributing editor), Diversion (as contributing columnist), Departures, ForbesFYI, San Francisco Examiner, Worth and Opera. His guidebooks include his own series of lovers’ guides: Guide to France for Loving Couples, Very Special Places: A Lover’s Guide to America, European Hideaways and Caribbean Hideaways (which the Miami Herald called “the bible.”). He is the recipient of the Marcia Vickery Award for Travel Writing and the first Anguilla 40 Award for in Recognition of Outstanding Contributions to Anguilla Tourism.