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The Hills Are Alive

The Berkshires make a spectacular setting for a variety of cultural offerings all summer long.
By Mario R. Mercado 

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Dancers at work on the Inside/Out stage at Jacob’s Pillow
© Cherylynn Tsushima/Courtesy Jacob’s Pillow Dance
Tanglewood claims a singular place in American musical life.

IN 1902, UPON RETURNING TO MASSACHUSETTS, where her new estate in the Berkshire Hills was still being built, Edith Wharton wrote to her friend Sally Norton, “Lenox has had its usual tonic effect on me, and I feel like a new edition, revised and corrected in Berkeley’s best type.” Wharton’s letter exudes the spirited enthusiasm writers, artists and musicians, residents and visitors have long expressed about the idyllic beauty of the Berkshires. In Wharton’s day, the region held the privileged wealth of the Gilded Age; before that, it was central to the activities of abolitionists and the lines of the Underground Railroad. THE MOUNT remained Wharton’s residence until 1911, when she sold it and moved permanently to France; it survives today as a house museum and cultural center that welcomes some 40,000 visitors each year. The Mount stands as a testament to Wharton’s principles of design and decoration and a vital symbol of the cultural efflorescence that burgeoned throughout the Berkshires in the twentieth century and continues today.

Prestigious arts attractions of every variety abound in the region. Fourteen miles from Lenox, in Becket, is the hilltop setting of JACOB'S PILLOW. “The Pillow,” as it is affectionately known, is the country’s foremost summer dance festival, started in 1931 by modern-dance revolutionary Ted Shawn. Here, spread in clearings among the woods, is a rustic collection of buildings connected by gravel paths—theaters, rehearsal spaces, offices and eateries with indoor/outdoor seating for audiences, dancers and staff.

Nature is an abiding presence at the Pillow. It surrounds the Doris Duke studio theater and the popular Inside/Out outdoor stage, set among maple trees and seemingly cantilevered on a hillside, with views of the valley beyond. The festival’s principal theater, the Ted Shawn, opened in 1942 and was described shortly thereafter, by John Martin in The New York Times, as “redolent with the odor of pine … practical and up-to-date … innocent of any taint of quaintness or self-conscious rusticity.”

Every summer, Jacob’s Pillow presents a packed schedule on its stages—more than fifty companies from throughout the world, in more than 250 performances. The festival’s history is storied: Jacob’s Pillow offered performances by Asadata Dafora, the first artist to perform African dance on a U.S. concert stage, and the introduction of classical, traditional and folk dance from India, Spain, Russia and Japan. The festival has a school for dance training—ballet, contemporary, musical-theater, tap—and sought-after residencies for choreographers and companies. 

An unforgettable highlight of the 2016 summer season was What the Day Owes to the Night, a mesmerizing dance piece by French–Algerian choreographer Hervé Koubi. Performed by a troupe of twelve strapping, self-taught Algerian and Burkina Faso male street dancers, the work was by turns overtly kinetic, ritualistic, mysterious and spiritual. The inexorable force of its movement seemed light years from the world of the dance artists who came to Jacob’s Pillow in the early 1940s to perform, teach and make dances—among them Anton Dolin, Alicia Markova, Antony Tudor, Bronislava Nijinska and Agnes de Mille. In 1941, Aaron Copland, assisted by a young Leonard Bernstein, also came to Jacob’s Pillow to play the score of his ballet Rodeo for de Mille as she developed the choreography for her groundbreaking 1942 work.

Copland and Bernstein are indelibly associated with another of the region’s cultural crown jewels—TANGLEWOOD. Located on 529 verdant acres between Lenox and Stockbridge, Tanglewood claims a singular place in American musical life. It endures, first and foremost, as the summer home of the Boston Symphony, which offers eight weeks of concerts there. Established in 1937 by Serge Koussevitzky, the orchestra’s visionary music director, the festival was conceived as a place of learning. The Tanglewood Music Center—first known as the Berkshire Music Center—was inaugurated in 1940 as an academy for the advanced training of young professionals, or fellows, as they are called. Budding composers, conductors, singers and instrumentalists are given instruction by leading musicians, teachers and members of the Boston Symphony. Copland served as the school’s assistant director and chaired the composition faculty. The list of composers who have studied there includes Lukas Foss, Ned Rorem, Jacob Druckman, Luciano Berio and John Harbison, as well as Bernstein, who considered Tanglewood his artistic home. Bernstein taught and conducted frequently at Tanglewood, celebrated his seventieth birthday there in 1988 with an all-star concert, telecast nationally, and conducted his last performance, in 1990.

For a festival of ambitious scope and international standing, Tanglewood wears its ambitions lightly. Luminaries of the music world and ardent young virtuosos tread the same paths, discuss music passionately at open-air cafés or fall silent at vistas of the Berkshires, receding in shades of green and blue. Tanglewood unfolds over lawns and meadows, amid stands of spruce, maple and birch. Here the landscape has a pastoral quality. Entering at Lion’s Gate, off Hawthorne Road, or from the parking lots ringing Tanglewood Drive, one encounters the Koussevitzky Music Shed, a curving, covered amphitheater that can hold some 5,000 listeners, with space for 13,000 more on its lawn—accommodating capacity audiences for the popular artists series, which has offered performances ranging from Dolly Parton and Earth, Wind & Fire to James Taylor and Emmylou Harris, both of whom will appear this summer.

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The matinée crowd outside “The Shed” at Tanglewood
© Paul Marotta/Getty Images

The Tanglewood experience is likewise beguiling for performers, though for different reasons. “Given its dimensions, the Shed possesses an amazing acoustic,” says Tony Fogg, administrator of the BSO. “The floating canopy that extends over and from the stage and baffles along the back of it, improvements from the late 1950s, have an incredible effect. Singers here for the first time walk onto the stage and, taking in the size of the space, often begin to push. But then, in a few minutes, they realize they can sing as inwardly and as softly as they wish. The voice still carries.” 

Beyond the Shed, in a glade at the bottom of a slope, lies Seiji Ozawa Hall, a superb 1,200-seat concert hall designed by William Rawn Associates. The hall is faced with yellow cedar and teak and imparts a sound that is vibrant and enveloping. It is a focal point for the programs of the Tanglewood Music Center, as well as the Festival of Contemporary Music, an important showcase for new music that will be directed by British composer Thomas Adès in 2018 and ’19.

Landmark opera productions at Tanglewood have included the U.S. premiere of Britten’s Peter Grimes in 1946, conducted by Bernstein and featuring soprano Phyllis Curtin as one of the Nieces. During her later career as a distinguished singing teacher, Curtin returned to Tanglewood as artist in residence, training scores of American singers, among them Stephanie Blythe, Sanford Sylvan and Dawn Upshaw, who now heads the music center’s vocal program. This summer, BSO music director Andris Nelsons leads the orchestra in Tanglewood performances of Das Rheingold. 

Time spent at Tanglewood inevitably whets the appetite for fresh wonders. It is intriguing enough that pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard and fellows from the Tanglewood Music Center will perform selections from Messiaen’s momentous Catalogue of Birds; the fact that these concerts are at seven in the morning, followed by guided bird walks at nearby PLEASANT VALLEY WILDLIFE SANCTUARY, in association with the Massachusetts Audubon Society, promises a recalibrating of perceptions. 

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Edith Wharton’s beloved Mount
© Mahaux Charles/Agefotostock

Stockbridge is the seat of the BERKSHIRE THEATRE GROUP, a 2010 merging of two important companies, Pittsfield’s Colonial Theater and the Berkshire Theatre Festival, whose joint heritage extends to the early twentieth century and encompasses a celebrated legacy of actors, including Sarah Bernhardt, the Barrymores, Buster Keaton, Katharine Hepburn, Anne Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman. In summers, the Berkshire Theatre Group produces performances on four stages. SHAKESPEARE & COMPANY, founded in 1978, is now one of the largest Shakespeare Festivals in the U.S. and operates year-round in Lenox. Once headquartered in the Mount, Shakespeare & Company presents performances in several theater spaces. THE BARRINGTON STAGE, located in Pittsfield, has developed and produced a number of world premieres, including the Tony-winning Broadway hit The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. BERKSHIRE OPERA FESTIVAL’s 2017 summer offering will be Ariadne auf Naxos, opening in August at the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield.

About an hour north, an easy drive from Stockbridge, is Williamstown, Massachusetts, close to the borders of New York and Vermont. Established some sixty years ago, the WILLIAMSTOWN THEATRE FESTIVAL—set on the campus of Williams College in a complex designed by Rawn Associates—produces new plays and musicals, as well as the classics. Williamstown has an enviable track record as an incubator of young actors, directors and designers, and as a magnet for established performers. Renée Fleming made her theater debut here in 2014, as star of the farce Living on Love

Williamstown also holds the Sterling and Francine CLARK ART INSTITUTE. After passing through the Clark’s new entrance, one is drawn to a broad terrace overlooking a reflecting pool and meadows and hills of a bucolic landscape. In the distance, on grassy slopes, cows are pastured. Japanese architect Tadao Ando designed the glass-walled pavilions and galleries of this structure, part of a 2014 expansion by Annabelle Selldorf of the original, neoclassical white-marble museum building and a redesign of the 140-acre woodland campus, including walking trails. 

The Clark houses an outstanding collection of European and American decorative arts, French Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and old master paintings. Each summer, the Clark mounts a series of special exhibitions, including this year’s Picasso: Encounters, an exhibition of thirty-eight prints and paintings that challenge the myth of Picasso’s artistic isolation, and Orchestrating Elegance, a sumptuous show devoted to the decorative design of painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema. The Alma-Tadema show re-creates for the first time the music room—furniture, paintings and decor—of the New York mansion of nineteenth-century financier and philanthropist Henry Gurdon Marquand, one of the founders of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In celebration of the exhibition, the Clark will host a summer book club inspired by the Gilded Age. First title: The Age of Innocence,by Edith Wharton—whose spirit is still very much present in the beautiful Berkshire Hills that inspired and invigorated her. spacer 

Mario R. Mercado, author of The Evolution of Mozart’s Pianistic Style, writes on music, dance, theater and art. 

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