Without music, Tanglewood is empty, eerie and beautiful
By Melena Ryzik
André Bernard was 3 months old when he attended his first concert at Tanglewood: Benny Goodman playing Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, in 1956. For nearly every one of the next 63 years, he has made a pilgrimage to the lush, sprawling lawn of this summer music mecca here in the Berkshires.
He has had a routine. Start off on the grass, ears peeled for the bell that signaled the show was about to begin. Then migrate to the Shed, the main concert hall, open on the sides. Watch the moths dart above the brasses and bows, fluttering up to the lights. Yo-Yo Ma, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Jessye Norman, Ray Charles, The Who: Bernard has seen them all here.
But he will not be able to add to that list this year. The coronavirus pandemic has forced the cancellation of Tanglewood, just as it has wiped out so many other beloved summer rituals: the blockbuster in the air-conditioned multiplex, the waterfront arts festival, the sweaty stadium pop extravaganza. Throughout the country, resonant seasonal pleasures have vanished.
The loss of Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra since 1937, hits particularly hard here in bucolic western Massachusetts, where the festival takes place on 524 rolling acres. Many fans, like Bernard, the vice president and secretary of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, have been attending for decades. (Bernard practically grew up in the wings: His father played the viola in the Boston Symphony.)
The rehearsal, lecture and concert calendar has been these devoted fans’ organizing principle; second homes were bought just to be nearby. They pinned their summers to Tanglewood, which normally attracts up to 350,000 people each season.
So what is the Berkshires without Tanglewood? Relaxed? Scenic? Yes. But also empty, eerie and very much on hold.
“It’s been quiet as anything,” said Barry Sheridan, a retired doctor who lives nearby. “It’s very sad.” Losing a year of activity when you’re younger is one thing, he added, but at his age, 85, time is more precious: “You’re not sure if there will be a next year.”
Tanglewood is the crown jewel — “the granddaddy,” Bernard called it — of a Berkshires cultural calendar that also includes the Jacob’s Pillow dance festival; the Williamstown Theater Festival; another theater festival, Shakespeare and Company; and the FreshGrass bluegrass music festival at Mass MoCA. All were canceled — a brutal shortchanging for a region dependent on tourism.
The Boston Symphony has been streaming some performances online, but its revenue loss from Tanglewood’s cancellation amounts to $16.3 million, according to a spokeswoman, though some of that loss has been mitigated by ticket donations and reduced expenses. (It is only the second time in the festival’s 83-year history that it hasn’t presented any live music; the other was in 1943, during World War II.)
A 2017 study by an economics professor at Williams College found that Tanglewood brings in over $100 million a year in economic benefits to the region, boosting hotels, museums and other businesses. Last year, the festival opened a new education facility on its grounds — with rehearsal space for musicians and programming for adults — that was meant to expand its reach even further.
In a normal summer, Lenox, a town of art galleries and upscale boutiques in historic buildings, would be awash in traffic and window shoppers; couples jockeying for a table at Zinc, a French bistro; day-trippers and health seekers from retreats like Canyon Ranch and Kripalu, a yoga center; and, late at night, performers and production crews gathering over drinks to rehash the evening’s shows. The sense of creativity and community was “electric,” said Tony Chojnowski, who owns four shops in Lenox and has often found himself in a midnight coterie of artists and dancers.
The coronavirus outbreak seems to be under control in Massachusetts, which is further along than most states in its reopening; it has even allowed indoor dining. But visitors are still sparse.
Chojnowski said foot traffic was down as much as 70% at his flagship boutique, Casablanca. “We’re canceling fall orders,” he said. “The cash flow isn’t there.” In the spring, when brick-and-mortar stores were shut, he began reaching out to his clientele to see how they were holding up. “I made probably 300 or 400 phone calls,” he said. “I’m hopeful we’ll be able to stay open.”
For those locals and the visitors who have reappeared, there are still pleasures in the verdant landscape, dotted with organic farms, hiking trails and spots to canoe and kayak. That is especially true for otherwise locked-in city dwellers and suburbanites.
“It’s like your eyes are drinking in the scenery,” said Ellen Abelove, a social worker from Long Island, who, with her husband, was trying to entice others to join them in the Berkshires. “I keep texting my friends: ‘We’re here!’”
Though indoor dining is an option, restaurants in Lenox and adjacent towns like Great Barrington and Stockbridge have created expansive outdoor setups, and streets are now lined with pop-up tents, like a long stretch of backyard weddings.
Recently reopened hotels are filled to their newly reduced capacities; bit by bit, institutions like Mass MoCA are reviving, with timed tickets. The Berkshire Theater Group even got permission from Actors’ Equity to stage live theater in August.
And Tanglewood is, in fact, still open — to registered visitors, as a park: 1,341 people have signed up.
Bernard was one of those who visited the grounds. “I found it a little haunting,” he said. “It’s a little, for me, like going back to the place I grew up. And I’d like to remember it the way it was.”