KETR

Tanglewood: Celebrating Beethoven In The Backwoods For 75 Years

Jul 14, 2012
Originally published on September 18, 2012 3:22 pm

It now seems like a natural rite of summer — open-air classical music festivals where audiences can hear great music while picnicking under the stars. But 75 years ago, when the Boston Symphony first performed on a former estate called Tanglewood in the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts, it was a novel idea.

When Serge Koussevitzy, the Russian-born conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, opened Tanglewood in 1937, he chose an all-Beethoven program, including the "Pastoral" Symphony. And when conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi opened the 75th-anniversary season last weekend, he re-created it.

Symphonies Amid The Scenery

Beethoven's musical tribute to nature, complete with bird calls, seems a perfect companion to the bucolic charms of Tanglewood. When you walk through the trees and open fields of the campus, you come across music everywhere: French-horn players rehearsing Strauss in a cabin in the woods, a string quartet playing through some contemporary music by John Harbison on a concert stage, two trumpets rehearsing Beethoven in a barn.

"It's a place where music and nature come together in the most wonderfully natural way," says composer and conductor John Williams, who has been coming to Tanglewood every summer since 1980, when he was named music director of the Boston Pops. "We learn something about ourselves as musicians and as listeners out here every day, when we're here among the trees and the beautiful weather."

When Koussevitzky opened Tanglewood's first season — in the middle of the Great Depression — the orchestra played in a tent. After a thunderstorm damaged it, the Boston Symphony built a modest but more permanent structure: a shed with a dirt floor in the auditorium and wooden seats, which wouldn't be out of place at a baseball stadium. And, with the exception of a little acoustical fine tuning, the structure has basically remained the same.

The Stars Come Out To Teach At Tanglewood

Over its 75-year history, Tanglewood has attracted some of the finest musicians in the world — not only to perform, but also to teach. Giants like Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein were fixtures for years, and these days Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax are among the faculty of the Music Center, which serves as a training ground for young musicians. Every summer, 150 of them, most in their early 20s, study at Tanglewood without paying a dime, says Boston Symphony managing director Mark Volpe.

"We invest $3 [million] to $4 million every year in training musicians, you know, for every other orchestra in the country and beyond," Volpe says.

Tom Rolfs, who is now principal trumpet of the Boston Symphony and teaches at Tanglewood, first came as an 18-year-old student straight out of Minnesota.

"The very first day I sat down in the orchestra, and Seiji Ozawa was on the podium," Rolfs says, "followed by Klaus Tennstedt, followed by a lesson from Gunther Schuller — a very strict lesson on how I should be accenting in Strauss — and then, Leonard Bernstein. So if that doesn't change your life, nothing will."

Rolfs and fellow BSO trumpeter Ben Wright are in charge of the five trumpet fellows this summer. David Cohen, 24, says just hearing the two of them has changed his approach to the instrument.

"You know, you can say, 'Do this differently, try this more, try this less,' but in the end, when you hear someone like Tom or Ben play it five feet away from you, it's worth a thousand words," Cohen says.

Socializing At Tanglewood

Of course, all the music-making in the world wouldn't mean anything without an audience, and they come in droves — about 350,000 tickets are sold every summer. Last weekend, Greg Passin came up from New York City to meet some friends, have a picnic and listen to some Beethoven. It's relaxed, he says, but there's a certain comfortable ritual.

"People are coming with their chairs and their tables and their bottles of wine, and clearly it's something they do all the time and have very specific ways of doing it," Passin says. "And, you know, they see their friends and acquaintances who do the same thing and meet with them. So it's the social aspect, as well as the musical."

Some have been coming for decades, like Bob Rosenblatt, a WWII vet. His first visit was in 1947, and he's been a volunteer usher for 40 years.

"My role as an usher prepares me not to listen closely, because you need to be aware of those people," Rosenblatt says. "But you do listen. Man, you do listen to those concerts. Every concert's my first. Doesn't it sound Pollyanna-ish? But it's true."

On Saturday night, Tanglewood officially celebrates its 75th anniversary with a gala concert featuring Yo-Yo Ma, John Williams and James Taylor, among others. It will be broadcast as part of the Great Performances series on PBS in August.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Open-air classical music festivals now seem to be a summer fixture. Audiences can hear wonderful music, and picnic under the stars. But 75 years ago, when the Boston Symphony first performed on a former estate called Tanglewood, in the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts, it was kind of a novel idea. Jeff Lunden traveled to Tanglewood last weekend, and has this report.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: When Serge Koussevitzy, the Russian-born conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, opened Tanglewood in 1937, he chose an all-Beethoven program, including the Pastorale Symphony. And when conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi opened the 75th anniversary season, he re-created it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "PASTORALE SYMPHONY")

LUNDEN: Beethoven's musical tribute to nature, complete with bird calls, seems a perfect companion to the bucolic charms of Tanglewood. When you walk through the trees and open fields of the campus, you come across music everywhere.

French horn players rehearsing Strauss, in a cabin in the woods.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "ALSO SPRACH ZARATHUSTRA")

LUNDEN: A string quartet playing through some contemporary music by John Harbison, on a concert hall stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUNDEN: Two trumpets rehearsing Beethoven, in a barn.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, BEETHOVEN'S FIFTH)

JOHN WILLIAMS: It's a place where music and nature come together in the most wonderfully natural way.

LUNDEN: Composer and conductor John Williams has been coming to Tanglewood every summer since 1980, when he was named music director of the Boston Pops.

WILLIAMS: We learn something about ourselves as musicians, and as listeners, out here every day when we're here among the trees and the beautiful weather, and so on.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "PASTORALE SYMPHONY")

LUNDEN: Boston Symphony managing director Mark Volpe oversees the 1,000 employees and volunteers at Tanglewood, from the Victorian house on the property.

MARK VOLPE: Every city has a concert hall. What makes the Boston Symphony absolutely unique in the world of orchestras, is Tanglewood. Tanglewood really is the granddaddy of this notion of a summer venue.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, MOZART)

LUNDEN: That's a bit of Koussevitzky conducting Mozart during Tanglewood's first season - in the middle of the Great Depression, when the orchestra played in a tent. After a thunderstorm damaged the tent, the Boston Symphony built a modest but more permanent structure - a shed with a dirt floor in the auditorium, and wooden seats which wouldn't be out of place at a baseball stadium. And, with the exception of a little acoustical fine-tuning, the structure has basically remained the same.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "PASTORALE SYMPHONY")

LUNDEN: Over its 75-year history, Tanglewood has attracted some of the finest musicians in the world not only to perform, but to teach. Giants like Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein were fixtures for years. And these days, Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax are among the faculty of the Music Center, which is a training ground for young musicians. Every summer, 150 of them - most of whom are in their early 20s - study at Tanglewood without paying a dime, says Mark Volpe.

VOLPE: We invest 3-, $4 million every year in training musicians, you know, for every other orchestra in the country and beyond.

LUNDEN: Tom Rolfs, who is now principal trumpet of the Boston Symphony and teaches at Tanglewood, first came as an 18-year-old student straight out of Minnesota.

TOM ROLFS: And the very first day, I sat down in the orchestra; and Seiji Ozawa was on the podium, followed by Klaus Tennestedt, followed by a lesson from Gunther Schuller - a very strict lesson on how I should be accenting in Strauss - and then Leonard Bernstein. So if that doesn't change your life, nothing will.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUNDEN: Rolfs, and fellow BSO trumpeter Ben Wright, are in charge of the five trumpet fellows this summer. Twenty-four-year-old David Cohen says just hearing the two of them has changed his approach to the instrument.

DAVID COHEN: You know, you can say, do this differently; try this more; try this less. But in the end, when you hear someone like Tom or Ben play it 5 feet away from you, that - you know, it's worth a thousand words.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "PASTORALE SYMPHONY")

LUNDEN: Of course, all the music-making in the world wouldn't mean anything without an audience, and they come in droves. About 350,000 tickets are sold every summer. Last weekend, Greg Passin came up from New York City to meet some friends, have a picnic, and listen to some Beethoven.

GREG PASSIN: It's relaxed, but it feels very - not formal, but ritualized in a way, right? People are coming with their chairs and their tables and their bottles of wine and, clearly, it's something they do all the time and have very specific ways of doing it. And, you know, see their friends and acquaintances, who do the same thing and meet with them. So it's the social aspect as well as the musical.

LUNDEN: And some have been coming for decades - like Bob Rosenblatt. A World War II vet, his first visit was in 1947. He's been a volunteer usher for 40 years.

BOB ROSENBLATT: My role as an usher prepares me not to listen closely, because you need to be aware of those people. But you do listen. Man, you do listen to those concerts. Every concert's my first. Doesn't it sound Pollyannaish? But it's true.

LUNDEN: Tonight, Tanglewood officially celebrates its 75th anniversary with a gala concert featuring Yo-Yo Ma, John Williams and James Taylor, among others. It will be broadcast on PBS' Great Performances in August.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden.

SIMON: And you can hear Tanglewood's opening night concert, and see pictures from its 75-year history, on our website, nprmusic.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.