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Where Music's In The Air

Massachusetts' Beloved Tanglewood Festival Is a Picnic Set to Beethoven, Bach and Berkshires Nostalgia

March 16, 1997|Donald W. George | Donald W. George is editor of Wanderlust, an online travel magazine

My romance with Tanglewood dates back exactly 25 years, when some friends and I drove the 90 minutes from our Connecticut hometown to this magical musical complex for a concert of Beethoven's First and Ninth symphonies.

As an irrepressibly poetic teenager, I was swept away by the place. After that first visit, in July 1972, I exulted in my journal: "Tanglewood is a huge, open, nature/music-lover's Xanadu. Classical music is played there, the orchestra in an open, roofed, flat auditorium and most of the crowd sitting or lying on incredibly luxurious, sprawling lawns. A blanket, bread, wine and cheese put the finishing touches to the air and the breeze, the stars and the music. . . . The place just caught my soul and held it--the music and the night combined to flow together, over and around me: unearthly, mystical."

Tanglewood merits such effusions. Nestled just outside the town of Lenox in the green folds of western Massachusetts' Berkshire Hills, the 300-acre complex of rolling hills, glades of oaks, maples and pines, manicured lawns, practice cottages and performance sheds marries earthly beauty with heavenly music every summer. From late June to early September, students from around the world study at the Tanglewood Music Center with master composers, conductors, singers and musicians. And the Boston Symphony Orchestra takes up residence to headline the Tanglewood Music Festival, an eclectic schedule that attracts more than 300,000 music-lovers.

About three hours by car from both New York and Boston, Tanglewood is one of the cultural institutions that springs Brigadoon-like to life every summer in the Berkshires. All within 30 miles of each other are: the Berkshire Theater Festival in Stockbridge; the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Becket; the Berkshire Opera in Lenox; the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Williamstown; the Shakespeare & Company theater festival at The Mount, writer Edith Wharton's former summer home, in Lenox; and the Aston Magna classical music festival in Great Barrington. Other area cultural treasures open year-round include the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge; the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield; and the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown.

You don't have to be an impressionable teenager to be swept away here. This is New England at its most picturesque: trim towns with white-shingled, black-shuttered, two-story Colonial houses set on shaded lawns; high-steepled white churches overlooking town greens; pocket cemeteries graced with crumbling gray tombstones; and along main streets, brand-name boutiques next to stubborn, scruffy stores selling everything from fishing lures to Yankee magazine to milk in glass bottles.

For five years after my first visit, Tanglewood pilgrimages became an essential part of every summer. Sometimes I would make the trip alone, sometimes with David Ruccio, a friend who shared my passion for music and adventure.

Here's how I described our ritual in my journal:

"Our routine rarely varies. If a family car is available, we may drive, but usually we prefer to hitchhike--somehow this has become an indispensable part of the experience. First we hand-letter both sides of a sign--one side saying Lenox, for the early part of the trip; the other Tanglewood. Then we pack the necessary provisions: Muenster cheese and Italian bread, some apples, a tent and our sleeping bags. Finally one of our parents drives us out to the entrance to the highway. From that point we're on our own, trusting to the kindness of strangers and the karma of our thumbs.

"We never have any real trouble getting rides--though the beautiful blonds in the red convertible that we both fantasize haven't yet materialized. But we always meet kind and interesting people along the way--and if worse ever comes to worst, we have our tent, our sleeping bags and our food, so we can always bivouac off the road and make a picnic wherever we are.

"The hitchhike is the initial rite of passage, but the real epiphany is Tanglewood itself. We spread our sleeping bags on the warm and cushioning lawn, break out our bread and cheese and, as sunset gives way to evening, look up at the stars and let the incomparable music transport us."

Tanglewood's incomparable music first sounded 35 years before my initial visit, but the site's origins go back to the mid-1800s, when the Berkshires began to flourish as a getaway for wealthy city folk who wanted to escape the summer swelter and grime of Boston and New York. These summer residents built Mediterranean villas framed by gardens, or red brick estates surrounded by statues, gazebos and fountains.

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