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Berkshire County Braces For Devastating Impact Of No Tanglewood Season

A sign for the Upper West Lot sits in front of an empty field
Josh Landes
The main lawn at Tanglewood from seasons past

The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s decision to cancel the summer season at Tanglewood means a grim forecast for Berkshire County’s economy.

Friday, the BSO made official what was long speculated in Berkshire County: due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Tanglewood’s sprawling lawn won’t be covered in blankets and picnic baskets this summer.

4th Berkshire District State Representative Smitty Pignatelli calls the cancellation a game changer.

“They are the economic driver of the Berkshires. We depend so much on travel and tourism and hospitality," said Pignatelli . "The creative economy is number one.”

The Democrat isn’t exaggerating. A 2018 third-party study by Williams College found Tanglewood brings over $100 million into the state economy. That’s $40 million more than what a similar study found in 2008. It was expected to further rise by as much as $25 million in 2019 with the opening of the first year-round building complex to house the new Tanglewood Learning Institute.

“Since we’ve decided that it would be imprudent to have live audiences congregate –in obviously close consultation with medical experts and the state and all that – we, rather than just canceling, and closing and padlocking the gate, we’ve decided to experiment with a digital festival," said BSO President and CEO Mark Volpe. "Tanglewood 2020 in a digital context.”

He says the company – which announced furloughs for almost 500 staffers and sweeping salary reductions in April – is transitioning its model to into that of a media company.

“We have great friends for many years – certainly Yo-Yo Ma and Manny Ax and James Taylor – that are all participating in helping us create this new content, and the BSO players have been fantastic in partnering with us," said Volpe. "So we will be having new content and that will be blended with archival material that we have featuring the full glory of the Boston Symphony and our incredible students at the Tanglewood Music Center.”

But losing the 350,000 plus visitors to the Berkshires – most of whom are from out of the county and half of whom are from out of the state – is a massive hole to fill.

“In Boston, you could argue – we’re obviously, there’s some economic impact, I don’t want to suggest otherwise – but it’s modest compared to the scale of the economy in Boston, whereas in the Berkshires in the summer, we’re a big part of the economy," Volpe told WAMC. "So this could potentially be devastating, and that was a big consideration and why we took so much time to kind of hold out some modicum of hope.”

“In Lenox – I think this is probably similar for a lot of the businesses – I do 80% of my business during basically the summer season, with all of the cultural attractions that are here," said Sonya Bykofsky, a massage therapist in Lenox.

“Political activist, frustrated American," she added. "What more do you need? How are my levels? You got it?”

While Jacob’s Pillow’s cancellation earlier this spring served as the canary in the coal mine for the county’s normally robust summer season, she still describes the blow of losing Tanglewood as devastating.

“Much as I would like there to be some alternative that I think could safely work, I think they made the right choice here," said Bykofsky. "I do not think there’s any way to bring all of those people together safely. And so I back the decision as painful as it is because I think it’s the right decision to safely protect my friends, my community, and my clients.”

As the Berkshires scramble to brace for a long, barren summer season, Rep. Pignatelli says it’s time for local landlords and business to rethink their pricing models.

“It’s one thing to charge what you can get, and it’s another thing to charge what you need," Pignatelli told WAMC. "And I think that’s two different conversations. It’s much like a restaurant – yeah, you can charge $45 for an entrée in July and August, but the local people can’t afford that $45 entrée. So you can charge $45 because that’s what you can, or that same meal can be $25 because that’s what you need. That’s a very different conversation and I hope that we all will take a look at that opportunity to cultivate the people that do live here, the visitors that still will come regardless of the Tanglewood situation because of our natural beauty and our recreation opportunities.”

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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