In western Massachusetts, the hills really are alive with the sound of music.
At least they are when Tanglewood, one of the world's premier music festivals and the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, has its season.
Nestled in the serene beauty of the Berkshire Hills, in the quintessentially New England town of Lenox, Mass., Tanglewood 50 or more mostly classical concerts spread over nine weeks from the first of July through Labor Day weekend.
It's the grande dame of American music festivals and attracts some of the most glittering stars on the international music scene. Along with its music school, Tanglewood is a place where students and professionals, orchestra members and guests form community of musicians -- studying, teaching and performing.
Make that lots of performing. A typical season includes 25 or more concerts by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, each with a different program, blending familiar classics with the occasional rarity. A visiting orchestra makes at least one appearance, star soloists appear regularly, and chamber concerts and a semi-staged opera are scheduled. Students of the Tanglewood Music Center and the Boston University Tanglewood Institute, which make up the educational arm of the festival, also perform.
For those less interested in classical music, a weekend of jazz and at least one pop concert are staged. If all that isn't enough, the public is invited to the Boston Symphony's open rehearsals on Saturday mornings.
For some patrons, it is a toss-up which is the greater attraction: the music or the setting. Tanglewood's 210 acres of lawns, gardens, woods and meadows are idyllic. Strolling the grounds before the start of the concert is an indispensable part of an evening at Tanglewood.
The Koussevitzky Music Shed, the main stage, provides reserved, covered seating for 5,000 listeners. The extensive lawn in front provides almost unlimited "seating" at greatly reduced ticket prices.
People stake out spaces on the lawn and bring picnic suppers, which can be purchased at area restaurants and cafes. The sound system is excellent, and because only those at the very front of the lawn can see the stage (because of the slope of the ground), it really doesn't matter where you sit.
Weather is a factor. If you are not in the shed, there just aren't enough trees to go around in case of a sudden downpour. And while summer days in the Berkshires can be hot and muggy, nights are often pleasant and cool -- sometimes downright cold. Many first-time visitors have learned the hard way to bring a sweater, even in August.
The festival began in 1934 when a committee of well-heeled summer and year-round Berkshire residents invited the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra to give a series of three outdoor concerts in a riding ring about three miles south of what today is Tanglewood. The festival committee wanted, among other things, to create an American counterpart to the Salzburg Music Festival, the famed symphonic festival set like a gem in the Austrian Alps.
While outermost Massachusetts may seem an unlikely spot for such a lofty ambition, the Berkshires are a natural setting for a music festival. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the region was a haven for writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Edith Wharton and Oliver Wendell Holmes and for artists like Daniel Chester French and Norman Rockwell. It was also a popular summering spot for wealthy families, including the Vanderbilts and Carnegies.
The festival's first two summers were enormously successful, drawing large and enthusiastic crowds, and even turning an unexpected profit. In 1936, the festival committee invited the Boston Symphony, led by the celebrated Russian conductor Serge Koussevitzky, to perform the following summer. Their series of three concerts drew an impressive total of 15,000 people.
With Koussevitzky on the podium, Tanglewood began to realize JTC one of the dreams of its founders by attracting listeners, and media attention, from across the country and abroad.
That winter, the festival received an enormous boost when Mrs. Gorham Brooks, a Boston resident and symphony enthusiast, and Mary Aspinwall Tappan, her elderly aunt, offered the Tappan family estate as a permanent home for the festival. (The family had named the estate "Tanglewood" because Hawthorne wrote his "Tanglewood Tales" in a cottage on the site.) The gift of a house and land was gratefully accepted, and, in 1937, Koussevitzky led the Boston Symphony in an all-Beethoven program that launched the Tanglewood of today.
Early on, only the musicians were protected by a tent; the audience was sometimes completely uncovered. Construction of a pavilion was planned, then delayed because of the expense. But in 1937 a thunderstorm -- perhaps the most famous in Berkshire County history -- speeded construction unexpectedly.
Thunder twice interrupted Wagner's "Rienzi" Overture, and a downpour drenched audience members in all their finery. During the intermission, Gertrude Robinson Smith, president and guiding spirit of the festival, mounted the stage and appealed to the rain-soaked audience for money. That night, she raised $30,000 of the $100,000 needed.
Except for some modification and improvements in the acoustics, the Serge Koussevitzky Music Shed remains much as it was when it was built.
In Tanglewood's nearly 60 years, the list of pre-eminent musicians, conductors and composers who have graced the concert stage reads like a list of Who's Who in music. In 1940, when the Berkshire (now Tanglewood) Music Center opened its first six-week season, the faculty included Aaron Copland and Paul Hindemith. Among the 312 students was a pianist and conductor fresh out of Harvard named Leonard Bernstein. He was a presence at Tanglewood nearly every summer until his death in 1990.
This year's season opened July 1 with a concert by the Juilliard String Quartet and will close with a weekend of jazz Sept. 3-5, with concerts by Tony Bennett, the Oscar Peterson Trio and the Ramsey Lewis Quintet.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra's season opened July 9, when Seiji Ozawa, the symphony's music director, conducted Mahler's Symphony No. 1, featuring a guest appearance by soprano Cheryl Studer. An all-Beethoven program, led by Marek Janowski and with violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann as soloist, will close the Boston Symphony's Tanglewood season Aug. 29.
A trip to Tanglewood is not a vacation-long commitment to classical music. The Berkshire region has developed into a veritable orgy of the arts in the summertime.
Williamstown, 45 minutes north of Lenox, is the host of a theater festival that attracts many big-name actors, directors and playwrights from New York. There is more theater at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, and the Mount, Edith Wharton's spectacular home in Lenox, is the host of a series of outdoor performances by Shakespeare and Company.
There is opera at the Berkshire Opera Company and dance at Jacob's Pillow, both in Lee, Mass., and musical theater at the Theater Barn in nearby Lebanon, N.Y.
IF YOU GO . . .
Getting there: Lenox, Mass., is a one-hour drive southeast of ** Albany, N.Y. Several airlines offer restricted, round-trip fares of about $220 between Baltimore and Albany during the summer. Check for bargain fares.
Where to stay: Possibilities in the Berkshires run from motels to four-star resorts. Many people enjoy a stay at a New England bed and breakfast, but rooms get tight when Tanglewood is in season. Also, most places require a minimum stay of three days on weekends in July and August.
A popular choice is the Apple Tree in Lenox. Situated on a hilltop, this 1890s estate offers views of the Berkshire countryside, and it's directly across the road from Tanglewood. Rates are $140 to $300 a day, with a three-day minimum during the Tanglewood season. Contact the Apple Tree Inn, 224 West St., Lenox, Mass. 01240; (413) 637-1477.
The Village Inn, in the heart of Lenox, reflects its Colonial heritage. Rates are $85 to $160, with a three-day weekend minimum in July and August. Contact the Village Inn, 16 Church St., Lenox, Mass. 01240; (800) 253-0916 or (413) 637-0020.
The Brook Farm Inn is a bed and breakfast that also serves afternoon tea. Rates are $100 to $165, including breakfast. Three-day weekend minimum in July and August. Contact the Brook Farm Inn, 15 Hawthorne St., Lenox, Mass.; (413) 637-3013.
Tanglewood tickets: Ticket prices for concerts in the Serge Koussevitzky Music Shed range from $13 to $65. Lawn tickets cost $11 ($12 for special concerts) and are sold only on the day of the performance. Theater-Concert Hall prices range from $14.50 to $22, with lawn tickets going for $8 ($9 for special concerts).
Information: Tanglewood schedules and ticket information are available from Tanglewood Music Festival, Lenox, Mass. 01240; (413) 637-1940 or (617) 266-1492.
Information on the Lenox area is available from the Lenox Chamber of Commerce, 74 Main St., Lenox, Mass. 01240; (413) 637-3646.
A free 80-page book with information on the Berkshire region is available from the Berkshire Visitors Bureau, Berkshire Common, Pittsfield, Mass. 01201; (413) 433-9186.