Without Music, Tanglewood Is Empty, Eerie and Beautiful


LENOX, Mass. — André Bernard was three 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: Mr. 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 Mr. Bernard, the vice president and secretary of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, have been attending for decades. (Mr. 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.”

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.

Mr. Chojnowski said foot traffic was down as much as 70 percent 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.

Mr. 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.”

His friend Stewart Edelstein, a retired lawyer, was also sustained by memories of concerts past. Mr. Edelstein, who has played the French horn for more than 60 years, recalled a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, which includes 10 horns. “It was a revelation,” he said.

Others have embraced a music-free Tanglewood, returning with a book or knitting project. On a recent Sunday, a handful of people performed a new version of their Tanglewood routines. (There was no traffic, so there was no need for the back road — the one everyone swears only he or she knows about.)

They parked all too easily; slung their fold-up camp chairs over their shoulders; and waited obediently in a socially distanced line to enter the grounds, cracking jokes behind their masks.

The lawn — a special mix of Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass and a variety called fine fescue, designed to withstand the footsteps of up to 18,000 music fans a night — was as supernaturally green as ever. The vista, still magnificent. The sound? No tuning. Mostly birds chirping. Save for a robin dashing from the shadow of one red maple to another, it was very still.

There are some new rules. While visitors once packed elaborate picnics — with wine and white tablecloths, floral centerpieces and even candelabras — now there’s officially no eating allowed. “You’re not going to mention that we had a sandwich, are you?” one woman nervously asked a reporter.

Spread out under a white oak with a few friends, Gene Tencza, a cabinetmaker from Orange, Mass., pulled out a tin whistle. He played some traditional Irish and Polish tunes and — showing off a little — a rendition of “Heartbreak Hotel.”

He and his friends reminisced about performances by Wynton Marsalis and James Taylor, a Tanglewood stalwart; the annual closing production of Beethoven’s Ninth; and other indelible festival moments. As the afternoon grew late, a bell rang — these days signifying not that the concert is beginning, but that the grounds are closing — and Mr. Tencza and his whistle paraded his distanced friends out, to the tune of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

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