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Tanglewood: Celebrating Beethoven In The Backwoods For 75 Years

Christoph von Dohnanyi and the Boston Symphony play Beethoven in the opening night concert of the Tanglewood Festival's 75th anniversary.
Hilary Scott
Boston Symphony
Christoph von Dohnanyi and the Boston Symphony play Beethoven in the opening night concert of the Tanglewood Festival's 75th anniversary.

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 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.