Tanglewood; a fully functioning music venue, historic landmark, music school and the summer home of The Boston Symphony Orchestra, is located in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts in the towns of Lenox and Stockbridge, equidistant between Boston and New York City.
Tanglewood was founded in August of 1934 when Somerville, MA native Henry Kimball Hadley endeavored to secure a location suitable for a seasonal classical music festival. Hadley had been a composer and the Associate Conductor of The New York Philharmonic Orchestra at the time and was referred to Gertrude Robinson Smith, who was a passionate patron of classical music. Smith, who was also a woman of significant financial means, in just three months, managed to secure the funds necessary to sponsor the first outdoor performances of The Berkshire Symphonic Festival later known as Tanglewood.
Those first concerts featured the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and were held on the estate of Daniel Hanna in Stockbridge. Hanna was the son of the successful industrialist, Mark Hanna of Cleveland, Ohio. It wasn’t until 1936, two years later, that the Boston Symphony Orchestra played their first concerts in the Berkshires. By that time, the festival had moved to the estate of Margaret Vanderbilt in Lenox, Ma.
1937 saw another move for the festival. This time, to the estate of Mrs. Gorham Brooks and Miss Mary Aspinwall Tappan. Nathaniel Hawthorne, the writer, also rented a cottage on the same property and while there, penned The Tanglewood Tales, a book based on the Greek myths and thusly, the name Tanglewood was adopted for the festival.
That same year, in dramatic display, a thunderous storm arose during a performance of Richard Wagner’s “Ride of The Valkyries.” It tore down the tent in which the performances were held, drenching the concert goers. Heroically, Gertrude Smith took to the stage and announced the need for a permanent building on the property. Within minutes $30,000 in donations had been collected. Subsequently, the Serge Koussevitzky Music Shed was constructed. It was completed just in time for the 1938 concert season. The structure was designed by Eliel Saarinen and simply called “The Shed” until 1988, when it was re-dedicated to Koussevitzky who was a conductor, composer, and double-bassist. He was also the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1924 to 1949 and one of the original founders of Tanglewood. In 1939 Koussevitzky purchased Saranac Manor, which in now owned by the BSO. Saranac being an acronym for Serge and Natalie Koussevitzky.
In 1940 Koussevitzky founded Tanglewood Music Center.
The Koussevitzky Music Shed is an open air venue with over 5,000 seats. “Acoustic clouds” have been strategically positioned above and around the performance area as well as in the aft section, to maximize the potential of the state of the art sound system. The Koussevitzky music shed has served as a performance outlet for the past 75 years, featuring the most prominent classical soloists and conductors of our time including Yo-Yo Ma, Rubenstein, Heifetz, Piatigorsky, Arthur Fiedler, Keith Lockhart and Hollywood’s most acclaimed conductor, John Williams, who has received over 50 Academy Award nominations.
The Koussevitzky Music Shed has also been the home of the “Contemporary Trends at Tanglewood” series. Beginning in the 1960’s, the series has presented some of modern music’s most successful acts and only stopped briefly In 1972, amid complaints of excessive decibel levels and unruly audiences. It continued the very next year featuring more mellow artists, more closely related to the soft rock genre.
Among the most notable artists to appear are Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Ray Charles, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Chick Corea, Airto Moriera, Jack DeJohnette, Liza Minnelli, Natalie Cole, Whitney Houston, Willie Nelson, B.B. King, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Orpheus, Neil Young, The Beach Boys, Steve Winwood, Warren Zevon, Joni Mitchell, Paul Butterfield, Tim Hardin, Bob Dylan, and all time favorite James Taylor, who customarily plays on the 4th of July followed by a fireworks display.
The main concert hall at Tanglewood is dedicated to Seiji Ozawa, who was the 13th and longest tenured music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Seiji Ozawa Hall was designed by William Rawn Associates, Architects of Boston and incorporates elements of both Japanese architecture and traditional architecture of the New England area. The venue opened in 1994 and has 1,100 seats with large doors at the rear that open to a spectator lawn. It’s world class sound system incorporates a slight delay, serving to synchronize the natural acoustic resonance of the building with the sound system. This combination of technologies provides an enhanced listening experience for those patrons within the hall and those patrons listening from the lawn.
Tanglewood is also the home of several music education organizations including The Tanglewood Music Center, Boston University Tanglewood Institute, Days in The Arts, for middle school students, Kid’s Corner, a weekend program with arts and crafts activities and Watch and Play, a program for children ages 3-10. In the regular season, Tanglewood is visited by over 350,000 people.
In 2021, the Boston Pops broke with their long held tradition of celebrating the 4th of July on The Esplanade, along the Charles River in Boston and is scheduled to perform at Tanglewood, limiting the number of patrons that may attend, due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
(by John Cappello)