The Berkshires

The hills are alive with the sounds of Tanglewood plus modern dance, the art of Norman Rockwell and a literary tradition that goes back to Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville

In 1851, Herman Melville completed his opus, Moby-Dick, in the shadow of Mount Greylock (the view from his study); some see the form of a white whale in the winter contours of the peak--"like a snow hill in the air," as Melville put it. (Michael Christopher Brown)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 2)

In 1938, Tanglewood inaugurated its outdoor concert hall, the 5,100-seat Shed. The open-sided Shed allows 150,000 music lovers annually to enjoy classical performances, even when it rains. On clear afternoons and evenings, thousands more gather on the great lawn in front of the Shed to picnic while listening to concerts free of charge. Many additional performances are staged in 1,200-seat Seiji Ozawa Hall, opened in 1994 as part of the Leonard Bernstein Campus on 84 adjoining acres acquired in 1986.

Today, a summer season of Tanglewood concerts draws 350,000 visitors. On a crowded Friday evening this past July, BSO conductor James Levine was making his first public appearance since injuring his shoulder in an onstage fall in Boston four months earlier. The crowd cheered the conclusion of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony; the critics were also enthusiastic. "Mr. Levine can wave his arms just fine, thank you," wrote Bernard Holland in the New York Times.

The morning after the performance, Anthony Fogg, BSO's artistic administrator, analyzed the elements that distinguish Tanglewood from other summer music festivals, particularly those in Europe, where performances of this kind began. "In Salzburg or Lucerne, different ensembles perform every night," says Fogg. "Here, the BSO is in residence throughout the festival, and the musicians, support staff and their families move into the Berkshires for the duration." Fogg calculates that during the eight-week performance period, Tanglewood schedules some 1,600 "events," including rehearsals and performances.

From its inception in the 1930s, Tanglewood drew a well-heeled summer crowd, even as the northern Berkshires slid into economic decay. Northwestern Massachusetts, once a cradle of the Industrial Revolution, witnessed the decline of its mills in the face of competition, first from textile producers in the American South and then from abroad. Today, however, the northern Berkshires are reviving, thanks in large measure to the 250,000-square-foot MASS MoCA, since 1999 one of the world's largest art exhibition spaces.

The museum revels in its industrial roots, with cutting-edge art displayed amid the exposed brick, peeling paint, chipped columns and stained floors of 19th-century buildings, last occupied by an electrical components manufacturer in 1985. "Contemporary art got bigger and New York City real estate got too expensive," says Katherine Myers, MASS MoCA's head of public relations. "So, it made sense to put a museum in this old factory space." This summer's offerings will include a celebration of Dutch arts and culture; a survey of works by American conceptual artist Spencer Finch and an exhibition examining the interlinked visions of artists, scientists, spiritualists and conspiracy theorists.

Art realists might prefer to return to the southern Berkshires, for a glimpse into the reassuring world of Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), the artist and illustrator famous for his evocations of small-town America. (He is perhaps best known for the 322 Saturday Evening Post covers he executed from 1916 to 1963.) Born in New York City, Rockwell lived for 24 years in the northern suburb of New Rochelle, then a hub for magazine illustrators and copywriters.

But in 1953, he moved to Stockbridge (pop. 2,250), five miles south of Lenox. With its main street, barbershop, high-school prom, swimming hole and Sunday church services, Stockbridge seemed to exemplify the world that inspired Rockwell's works. "The commonplaces of America are to me the richest subjects in art," the artist wrote in 1936. "Boys batting flies on vacant lots; little girls playing jacks on the front steps; old men plodding home at twilight, umbrellas in hand...the things we have seen all our lives, and overlooked."

Much of his output—678 paintings and drawings—today hangs in the Norman Rockwell Museum, on Stockbridge's western outskirts. Constructed of wood, slate and fieldstone and opened in 1993, the building evokes a New England town hall; it draws some 165,000 visitors annually. On the day I showed up, entire families, from grandparents to toddlers, wandered the galleries—kids hoisted on their fathers' shoulders; an elderly man leaning on his cane while he stared intently at the portrait of a young girl applying makeup, perhaps for the first time; a middle-aged couple holding hands in front of a work titled Marriage License (1955).

The painting depicts a young couple applying for a marriage license at Stockbridge's Town Hall from a clerk clearly at the end of his workday. "You get this wonderful emotional contrast that interests Rockwell so much—the enthusiasm of the young couple paired with the apathy of the clerk," says Stephanie Plunkett, the museum curator. The bride-to-be stands on tiptoe at the high counter to sign marriage documents. The clerk, having already put on his galoshes, is about to reach for his raincoat and umbrella.

Rockwell knew of course that the real Stockbridge was more sophisticated than the town he depicted and whose citizens he used as his models. By the time he moved there in the 1950s, Tanglewood was drawing vast audiences of classical music aficionados, while only ten miles to the northeast, in Becket, lies Jacob's Pillow, the 161-acre farm that is now home to the acclaimed center for dance.

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus