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Back Together And Blown Away: The Boston Symphony Orchestra Returns To Tanglewood

Audience members assembled on the lawn to enjoy the Boston Symphony Orchestra, newly returned to Tanglewood after last season's cancellation.
Audience members assembled on the lawn to enjoy the Boston Symphony Orchestra, newly returned to Tanglewood after last season's cancellation.

The pandemic shut down most summer music festivals last year and Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts, was no exception. But on July 10 the BSO returned, with an all-Beethoven program featuring pianist Emanuel Ax.

In many respects it seemed as though nothing had changed. The lawn outside the Shed, where the Boston Symphony plays, was filled with concertgoers spread out on blankets and eating picnics. Victoria Cersosimo came all the way from Maine to gather with her family for the concert. Despite the eight hour drive, she says she comes every year, "except last year. It was really sad."

Tanglewood was something of a ghost town last summer because of the canceled festival. Visitors were allowed to walk on the grounds, with beautiful views of the surrounding mountains. But the center, typically abuzz with concerts, classes and rehearsals, was unusually quiet.

"No live performances, no audiences, no nothing," says assistant principal bass Lawrence Wolfe, a 51-year vet of the BSO. "It was heartbreaking."

The Boston Symphony eventually gave online offerings last summer, as well as throughout the pandemic. The musicians got frequent Covid tests, wore masks and sat distanced from one another. "We did what we set out to do," says Woolfe, "remain relevant, remain in your ears, remain in your eyes and remind you just how good we are."

Lawrence Wolfe, assistant principal bassist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, leaves the stage during during the July 10 concert at Tanglewood.
Hilary Scott / Boston Symphony Orchestra
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Lawrence Wolfe, assistant principal bassist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, leaves the stage during during the July 10 concert at Tanglewood.

But now, audiences can experience the orchestra in person again. Tanglewood is open to 50 percent capacity – approximately 9,000 people – which means there's some distancing in the Shed, and room to spread out on the lawn, where those who are vaccinated aren't required to wear masks.

"The orchestra is fully vaccinated," adds music director Andris Nelsons. "So we sit on the stage together, with practically no distance anymore."

And students – the Tanglewood Fellows - have returned, after meeting via Zoom last summer. "I've only played with people once since March 2020," says Maggie Cox, a fellow who plays bass. "And it was a very small ensemble, and everyone still wore masks." Cox did her fellowship online last summer, and also did her first year as a graduate student at the Curtis Institute virtually. She says being with other young musicians has been a godsend.

"What you want to do is play with people—you don't want to record iPhone videos and upload them to a cloud!" she says, laughing. "I think a lot of people have had the experience of just feeling really relieved. I think a lot of people felt burnt out and it's been really comforting to get back in shape so quickly."

Onstage at Tanglewood, Boston Symphony Orchestra music director Andris Nelsons (left) welcomes the organization's new president and CEO Gail Samuel.
Hilary Scott / Boston Symphony Orchestra
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Onstage at Tanglewood, Boston Symphony Orchestra music director Andris Nelsons (left) welcomes the organization's new president and CEO Gail Samuel.

Many arts organizations have come out of the pandemic thinking about calls for social justice, diversity and accessibility. The BSO is engaging in outreach efforts this summer; for example, it presented a "Tanglewood in the City" concert screening in the local community of Pittsfield last weekend. Gail Samuel, the BSO's new president and CEO, says it's an opportunity to "invite the local audiences to come outside of Tanglewood, really close to home," she explains.

"I think there are definitely efforts to connect," Samuel adds, "and I think that's the question: what do those add up to? And are we serving the community in a way that makes sense for them, not only for us?"

Meanwhile, Nelsons is thrilled to be rehearsing and performing with the Boston Symphony again. "After this one and a half years, experiencing [the] orchestra performing without masks and without distance, it was just... oh, I was so blown away," he says, giddily.

The first rehearsal, he adds, gave him goosebumps, and reminded him "how greatly we need to cherish things we have in this life."

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