Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony, at dusk. (Stu Rosner)
Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony, at dusk. (Stu Rosner)

LENOX, Massachusetts — Open-air classical music concerts are now a summer tradition in the United States. However, that wasn't the case 75 years ago, when the Boston Symphony first performed on a former estate called Tanglewood in the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts.

Since then, Tanglewood has been the summer home of the Boston Symphony.

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. When conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi opened the 75th anniversary season in early July 2012, he recreated it.

Beethoven’s musical tribute to nature, complete with bird calls, seems a perfect companion to the charms of Tanglewood.

Boston Symphony Sounds in Berkshire Mountains

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 contemporary music on a concert hall 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 conductor John Williams, who has composed many well-known movie scores.

The Oscar-winning composer has come 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 and so on."

John Williams leading the Boston Pops with James T
John Williams leading the Boston Pops with James Taylor on July 14, 2012. (Hilary Scott)

Boston Symphony managing director Mark Volpe oversees the 1,000 employees and volunteers from a Victorian house on the property.
"Every city has a concert hall. What makes the Boston Symphony absolutely unique in the world of orchestras is Tanglewood," Volpe says. "Tanglewood really is the grand daddy of this notion of a summer venue."

When Koussevitzky began conducting at Tanglewood during its first season - in the middle of the Great Depression - 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. And, with the exception of a little acoustical fine tuning, the structure has basically remained the same.  

Over the decades, Tanglewood has attracted some of the world's finest musicians, 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 twenties, study at Tanglewood for free.  

They also perform at Tanglewood.

Seiji Ozawa talks with Leonard Bernstein during a
Seiji Ozawa talks with Leonard Bernstein during a lecture for Tanglewood students in this undated file photo. (Walter H. Scott)

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

"The very first day I sat down in the orchestra and Seiji Ozawa was on the podium," he says, "and then, Leonard Bernstein. So, if that doesn’t change your life, nothing will. "

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.  

One recent weekend, Greg Passin made the three-hour drive from New York City to meet friends, have a picnic and listen to Beethoven.

"It’s relaxed, but it feels very, not formal, but ritualized in a way, right?" says Passin. "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. So, it’s the social aspect, as well as the musical."

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

"Every concert’s my first," Rosenblatt says. "Doesn’t it sound Pollyannaish?  But it’s true."

Tanglewood officially celebrated its 75th Anniversary with a gala concert, featuring Yo-Yo Ma, John Williams and James Taylor. There will be more gala evenings throughout the summer in the Berkshires.