The Berkshires Are Calling—And They Say Come Out and Play
The Berkshires, those gently nestled hills in Western Massachusetts, have a message for post-pandemic America: Come out and play.
The region’s vaunted cultural entities are all open for business, as are the inns, the hotels, the restaurants, the golf courses, the whitewater rafting, the museums and all the other activities that make the Berkshires lovely and unique.
Audiences for places like Jacob’s Pillow, America’s oldest summer dance festival, and Tanglewood, for generations the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, are back in full force. The masks are off and the smiles are on, as great performers take to the stages and happy audiences get essential parts of their lives back.
For true culture vultures, you can stack one outstanding aesthetic experience on top of the next, if you so desire, or you can enjoy a more leisurely stroll through the music, dance and art that the towns of Lenox, Lee, Becket and Stockbridge offer. My wife and I took a more aggressive approach on a recent Thursday night and did Jacob’s Pillow and Tanglewood back-to-back.
Here are some of the highlights.
Jacob’s Pillow offers indoor and outdoor performances. The indoor performance space is currently undergoing renovations, but no worries, because the outdoor stage is about as spectacular a setting for the performing arts as exists on earth. Audiences sit on comfortable, socially distanced benches for two or four in an intimate setting with perfect sightlines to the stage.
The stage itself is a large, mounted platform with a backdrop consisting of the Berkshire hills in all their afternoon or early evening glory. It must be just as much of a thrill for the performers to be working outside as it is for the audience. Where else do you get to dance in front of a highly discerning crowd of balletomanes while soaking up the sunshine of a New England summer afternoon?
We saw the Ballet Hispánico perform, and they did not disappoint. The group has been a fixture at Jacob’s Pillow for half a century and, this time around, included a number that commented on Latinx imagery in West Side Story. The message: There’s more to our dancing and our culture than what was portrayed in the iconic film.
That’s an example of what you find at Jacob’s Pillow. Groups from around the world with highly original perspectives and talents, carefully curated by a discerning staff. If you love dance, you can’t go wrong at Jacob’s Pillow.
Once the show was over, we leapt in our humble Honda Accord and joined the Tesla and Lexus caravan heading for that other great Berkshires institution, Tanglewood. If you’ve never been, Tanglewood consists of an indoor performance space, the Shed, with vast indoor seating, and opens out to a massive lawn, where you can picnic, play frisbee and generally cavort until the music starts.
Tanglewood features both the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood Festival Chorus (of which, I am a proud alum), as well as popular performers including, in any given year, James Taylor, Diana Ross and Arlo Guthrie.
On our Thursday night cultural double-header, we saw something rather unusual. BSO music director Andris Nelsons led a master class on conducting, with an orchestra composed (no pun intended) of high-level music students attending Boston University Tanglewood Institute.
A young British conductor put his youthful charges through a Beethoven overture, under Maestro Nelsons’ watchful eye. Once they got through the whole piece, which ran about 12 minutes, Nelsons stepped up and coached both the conductor and the orchestra on new and deeper ways to think about the piece.
If you’ve ever wondered what an orchestra conductor does, then you definitely want to attend a master class in conducting like the one at Tanglewood. Nelsons has an extraordinary depth of feeling for music; it’s not just the notes, it’s the story that the music is telling. Even if the audience doesn’t know the story, they will certainly feel the emotional impact of an orchestra that is privy to the emotions with which the composer originally imbued the work. A great conductor, therefore, can convey to the orchestra, in words and gestures, the emotions the music is intended to evince, and then the orchestra can translate those feelings for the listeners.
That’s a long way of saying that Nelsons showed the conductor how to conduct with comments like, “you don’t need so much geography,” meaning, “keep your hand gestures smaller,” to issues involving volume, pace, communication within different sections of the orchestra and other musical issues. Nelsons cited Braveheart as a cultural reference that everyone in the orchestra could understand.
The short of it is: Whether you go to Tanglewood for their traditional season-ending Beethoven’s 9th performance, for a popular artist like James Taylor or for an intimate evening watching aspiring orchestral musicians and conductors learn how to up their game, you will always come away richer for the time invested.
There’s something for everyone in the Berkshires, and it’s all there waiting for you right now, this summer. No more delaying. So, enjoy the winding roads, hiking trails and cultural attractions in the Berkshires before the leaves start to turn. Shakespeare wasn’t kidding when he wrote that summer’s lease hath all too short a date.