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BSO Details Return To Live Audiences For Shortened Tanglewood Summer

People sit on blankets on a lawn under umbrellas outside of a concert venue.
Hilary Scott
Boston Symphony Orchestra
The grounds of Tanglewood in 2016.

After a dormant 2020 season due to COVID-19, the grounds of Tanglewood in the Berkshires will again host live audiences this summer. In a shortened, six-week schedule starting July 9th, the  Boston Symphony Orchestra will perform for limited capacity crowds in the iconic concert venue. WAMC spoke with Boston Symphony Orchestra CEO Mark Volpe about the return to in-person performances, and what precuations, preparations and expectations are going into filling Tanglewood again after a long silence.

VOLPE: We, after spending probably five, six months, imagining what Tanglewood could be as we are in the 13th month of a pandemic, and trying to candidly envision what July and August might be, and optimistic about the rate of vaccination, so we are looking at a six-week festival starting with the first performance on July 9, and going through mid-August, with heavy concentration of content on the weekends. Saturday and Sunday will feature the Boston Symphony and Andris Nelsons will be with us for eight concerts. The Fridays will have very eclectic programming, and will include soloists and chamber music as well as possibly the Boston Pops. And beyond that, we are going to, instead of having 1,000 students on campus, we'll be looking at having 60 kids on campus, and kids meaning fellows at the Tanglewood Music Center who tend to be 22, 23 years old. So they'll be in two parts, one where they're residing and the other, obviously, on campus. So we're being very, very cautious. And we've been working with a team from nine foundations and a scientist from the Harvard School of Public Health who’s been advising us for the last several months on how to reopen Tanglewood in a safe way in a way that obviously maintains the guiding principle that health is paramount.

WAMC: What exactly is it going to be like for folks showing up to the concert grounds come the summertime? What kind of measures are in place to keep people safe?

Well, first of all, we have social distancing in the shed. So they’ll, right now, according to the state, we're only allowed 12%, we're assuming that's going to go up a bit as we make progress towards getting herd immunity. I would say the lawn, what we're going to be doing is giving everyone a little bit of a souvenir: a tarp they can take home, and that will have a little circle in the tarp, and that's where various, you know, family members can stay by a tarp for every two people, unless you come to Tanglewood by yourself and then you'll get your own tarp. And so that that will be our way of having social distancing on the lawn. Another alternative would have been just to paint circles all over the lawn, but that that that's one of the great branding dimensions of Tanglewood, that expansive lawn, so we weren't going to do that. So people will be given a tarp and they can take it home with them or bring it back if they come back to Tanglewood. So that is part of it. And candidly, we're going to be focusing, you know, most of the parking with reduced attendance on the main gate side of the campus, and certainly we’ll have all sorts of cleaning protocols. In terms of the campus itself, we have 104 buildings, most will be closed to the public other than the Shed, which is open air, and of course, restrooms. But the grounds will be totally open so people can certainly enjoy a leisurely walk or a more aggressive walk of they are so inclined, and ultimately can enjoy the various vistas and some of the spectacular scenery that we're so fortunate to have at Tanglewood. But the buildings itself, you know, there'll be a few buildings that are used just for rehearsals and the pedagogy that goes on at Tanglewood but won't be open to the public this summer. So the only space that we’ll have opened for public performances is the Shed, which is obviously open on three sides and very much an outdoor venue. And the lawn is all outdoor. So that is how we've addressed our various concerns about keeping our audience and our staff and orchestra and volunteers healthy.

Now, last year had an extremely ambitious schedule from a living Beatle to all manner of other attractions. Any idea on when some of those bigger ticket announcements are going to be rescheduled for Tanglewood?

Well, there's a possibility of, and I don't want to create expectations, but we're looking at rescheduling for late summer, early fall, assuming that that we continue to see progress. And then of course, I think many of the big time groups are looking at ’22 and looking to move dates another year, but it'll vary from group to group and we'll certainly know more in the next several months. Right now, it's clear- June, I mean, and you know, the big popular artists, if you will, you know. So we have some high profile events as well. But we're assuming we can manage, you know, manage the various crowds, and then do it in a way that that everyone has a good experience and goes home safely.

Now, the BSO was as much subject to the financial strains of 2020 as any other arts organization. Are there any news about staffing at the company or folks coming back on? There were a lot of layoffs and suspended things going on last year. What's the story on that front?

Well, obviously, if we're going have the public, come back on the ground, we're going have to hire staff that deals with, we call it front of house. It's sort of an old theater term of art. So we're bringing people back. And we've been able to maintain our equilibrium, financially speaking, with enhanced fundraising. So last year, we raised roughly $61 million to offset enormous losses and ticket income. And so we continue to go to our donor community that has invested for years if not decades in Tanglewood, and certainly invested in training the next generation, which is very much part of the ethos of Tanglewood through the Tanglewood Music Center. So, you know, we are delighted to have the ability to have in-person audiences and to even have a Tanglewood Music Center class, albeit smaller, you know, we're having 60 fellows rather than 150 fellows. We're not going to have vocal music. The fellows come from all over the world, so we're certainly maintaining a posture that they have to get quarantined, and we'll certainly be testing people who aren't vaccinated that are obviously, you know, students and people working with students that aren't vaccinated, although by that point, July and August, our hope is that preponderance of the population is in fact vaccinated.

I bet that Lenox was happy to hear about the in-person concerts.

I would hope Lenox and Stockbridge and maybe Pittsfield, and, you know, because we are very much part of the economic ecosystem of the Berkshires, especially in the summer. So we're very pleased to have the ability, you know, and we're scaling back right, right now, you know, we could be looking at it again, depends on what the rules are in July, but you know, we could be looking at 5,000 or 6,000 people. But you know, that's more than all the other, you know, venues in the Berkshire community can do probably combined. So even though we can't have 18,000 person crowds, and we're not anticipating having 18,000 person crowds, as we come out of the throes of a pandemic, I think it will have, I think, a real, substantive, meaningful impact on the Berkshire economy for the summer.

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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