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Connections: Summer storm at Tanglewood led to Shed

By Friday, Jul 4, 2014 Arts & Entertainment, Life In the Berkshires, Viewpoints

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America 2014

Tropical storm Arthur played havoc with a Berkshire institution last night. The James Taylor concert was delayed about 30 minutes. JT then soldiered on as his concert was punctuated by stabs of lightening and crashes of thunder.

Six thousand sat in relative comfort in The Shed while on the lawn at least twice that number was drenched if not drowned.

The 6,000 dry concert-goers owe their seats in The Shed to another concert almost eighty years ago.

The first outdoor concert was in 1934. In 1936, the night was starlit and quiet as the charismatic and world-renowned Serge Koussevitzky conducted one of the greatest orchestras in America. They performed Sibelius’ Second Symphony accompanied by the unnaturally loud chirping of a cricket. The Berkshire beastie was out of sight but situated so that its chirp was magically magnified. The local newspaper as well as New York, Boston, and two European papers critiqued both performances: Koussevitzky and the cricket.

Cover from the 1937 Tanglewood program.

Cover from the 1937 Tanglewood program.


August 12, 1937 nature was not as passive. As Koussevitzky conducted an All-Wagner concert all hell broke loose. The storm was so loud that the concert was interrupted and finally inaudible as torrents of rain hit the tent and intermittent thunder roared.

At intermission Gertrude Robinson Smith rose up and addressed the crowd. Robinson Smith was a woman of girth, guts and money. Her summer home in Stockbridge was called The Residence. She built it herself and lived in it with companion Miriam Oliver. The New York Times searching for language to describe Robinson Smith’s feminism, sexuality, and life style called The Residence “a man-less Eden.”

This redoubtable woman demanded contributions to build a concert hall — to stop the madness of a full orchestra performing in a tent.

One person present at the concert described the appeal this way: “She rose up, a big woman in a great big hat. She was a good speaker and so imposing I was impressed with her more than anything else that night.”

She raised $11,000. That is approximately $185,000 today. It was money raised during the Great Depression; raised in one night; actually in one 15 minute intermission. The rain thunder and lightning were Smith’s co-solicitors. It was a hell of a storm.

As impressive as Smith’s effort was, the money was not enough. The architect Koussevitzky selected, Eliel Saarenin, would not take the job for the money available.

Reputedly, he said, “For that amount of money you can only build a shed.”

So Stockbridge resident Joseph Franz built it, and bowing to Saarenin’s superior knowledge of all things architectural, Franz called it The Shed.

The shed at Tanglewood was the epitome of natural elegance. Made of wood and open on three sides, it is so tree-like the birds are attracted into the rafters where their songs entertain in the intervals. On a warm summer evening, sound fills the shed and carries out over the great lawn.

The following year, at Tanglewood, the music was the same, the size of the crowd was similar (14-15,000 people), and picnics were encouraged, but it was a very different place. It was smaller in acreage, there were no closed buildings on the property except the Tappan house, the Shed was simpler without the television, camera, and sound enhancements, and proper dress was mandatory. If women arrived in shorts, a wrap-around skirt was provided at the gate and she was not allowed onto the grounds until she put it on. Tickets ranged from $2 – $7.50.

From 1934 to 1937 great music was emanating from a tent and rolling out over hills and countryside. Tanglewood concerts in all their sophisticated execution are a mixture of urbanity and country charm. A salute to the remarkable job country folks did all those years ago, and 6,000 people were dry last night because at least that many rain-soaked attendees opened their pocketbooks 78 years ago.


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