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MUSIC: Boston University Tanglewood Institute’s Golden Anniversary

Great music may not save the world, but it may make the world worth saving. “We know that music cannot stop a bullet or feed the hungry, but it can bring empathy and joy to places where they are in short supply.” -- Yo-Yo Ma

Lenox — Addressing a class of aspiring young musicians on the opening of Berkshire (now Tanglewood) Music Center in the summer of 1940, Russian-born Serge Koussevitzky famously proclaimed, “If ever there was a time to speak of music, it is now in the New World . . . So long as art and culture exist, there is hope for humanity.”

Hope for humanity was hard to come by in those days. News from Europe was grim, and throughout the world the threat of war loomed large. But so did Koussevitzky’s long-cherished dream — first envisioned in his Russian homeland — of establishing an academy where “the greatest living composers would teach the art of composition, the greatest virtuosi, the art of perfect performance, the greatest conductors, the mystery of conducting orchestras and choruses.”

Leonard Bernstein conducts students at Boston University Tanglewood Institute. Photo courtesy of BUTI
Leonard Bernstein conducts students at Boston University Tanglewood Institute. Photo courtesy of BUTI

Having always known it would take a miracle to get his music academy off the ground, Koussevitzky was amazed when it finally opened, not in Russia, but thousands of miles from his homeland. “Little did I think that my own early dream of a Music and Art Center in Moscow, in the heart of Russia, would find its realization in the heart of New England a quarter of a century later. Indeed, miracles cannot be accounted for.”

The Tanglewood Continuum

Miracle or not, the popular conductor’s summer training program flourished admirably for two and a half decades before evolving into something far greater than he had anticipated: Its enrollment roughly doubled in 1966, thanks to an idea hatched by Erich Leinsdorf, then music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO), and Wilbur Fullbright, then director of the School of Music at Boston University’s College of Fine Arts (CFA). Leinsdorf’s idea was to extend the Tanglewood Music Center (TMC) by adding a similar training program for students between the ages of 14 and 22. The new program, Boston University Tanglewood Institute (BUTI), quickly gained recognition as one of America’s most important training programs for gifted young musicians. Thus, BUTI took its place on what its executive director, Hilary Field Respass, refers to as a “continuum of teaching and mentoring.” This “Tanglewood continuum” begins with studies at BUTI and ends at the conclusion of a TMC fellowship (or, in many celebrated cases, with membership in the BSO itself). Each year, BUTI trains hundreds of music students from all corners of America and many foreign countries. Over a period of half a century, more than 10,000 students have studied at BUTI, many of them returning to Tanglewood years later to refine their skills as TMC Fellows. (Twenty-three of 2016’s TMC Fellows began their Tanglewood experience at BUTI.)

The 50th Anniversary Celebration

Observing its 50th anniversary in 2016, BUTI held a day-long celebration on Saturday, August 6, 2016 that included a piano recital, an alumni panel discussion, a star-studded soiree in the Highwood Tent and — the day’s highlight — a concert performance in Ozawa Hall by the Institute’s Young Artists Orchestra and Chorus. On the following day, the Young Artists Composition Program held an end-of-summer recital showcasing its students’ newly created pieces.

BUTI bass players during the 50th anniversary concert.
BUTI bass players during the 50th anniversary concert.

A sizable contingent of distinguished BUTI alumni participated in Saturday’s anniversary concert. One of the most interesting was the BSO’s Assistant Principal Bass, Lawrence Wolfe, a 50-year BUTI alumnus. (Yes, he was there on BUTI’s opening day.) Appearing early in the program, Wolfe’s newly commissioned piece for double bass ensemble, “It All Starts with Koussy,” gave three BUTI alums and several of this year’s student bassists a lively run for their money. Wolfe’s whimsically difficult composition put all the ensemble’s players — including BSO veterans — through their paces. The piece was pure, if at times harrowing, fun for the bassists and audience.

The BUTI Young Artists Orchestra

Year after year, first-time listeners to BUTI’s Young Artists Orchestra express amazement at the players’ advanced musicianship, and there were plenty of amazed faces in the crowd on August 6. Saturday’s program recalled the orchestra’s inaugural performance in 1966, as both concerts opened with Wagner’s majestic “Overture to Die Meistersinger.” No piece of music could have been more appropriate for Saturday’s opening than the overture to Wagner’s tale of young musicians aspiring to competitive excellence in 16th-century Nuremberg. This rousing number perfectly suited Saturday’s festival atmosphere, as it hints at grand moments to come but stops short of full-tilt grandiosity. (Handel’s “Coronation Anthem No. 1,” ably conducted Saturday by Ann Howard Jones, would provide plenty of full-tilt grandiosity a little later in the program.)

A Legacy of Excellence

History is made every summer at BUTI. And, every summer, Tanglewood audiences catch glimpses of it, not only in student concerts and recitals, but in performances given by the 15 BUTI alumni who appear on the Shed stage every weekend as regular members of the BSO. Some, like violist Steven Ansell, and Timothy Genis, are first-chair players. Other BUTI alumni, such as pianist Kirill Gerstein, have become major international concert artists and return to Tanglewood from time to time for guest appearances with the BSO. Several of the Institute’s alumni serve on its faculty, and dozens more play in major orchestras throughout the world. These and other such exemplars of BUTI’s legacy continue to advance the school’s international reputation as an incubator to the classical music industry.

Conductor Ken-David Masur. Photo: Hilary Scott
Conductor Ken-David Masur. Photo: Hilary Scott

But on Saturday, the most awe-inspiring revelation of BUTI’s legacy came when Ken-David Masur, a 1996 BUTI alumnus, conducted the Young Artists Orchestra in the Wagner overture, followed, at program’s end, by the Young Artists Orchestra and Chorus in Leonard Bernstein’s “Make Our Garden Grow,” from “Candide.” Closing with the Bernstein piece was wise, because it would have stopped the show no matter when they played it.

The significance of these moments can hardly be overstated. They speak volumes about what the Tanglewood continuum is all about, and they validate BUTI’s long history of partnership with the BSO.

Leonard Bernstein, after attending the Music Center as Serge Koussevitzsky’s protégé in 1940, spent 50 years of his life teaching at Tanglewood. Ken-David Masur, 15 years after his BUTI studies, put in two summers as a TMC Fellow before winning an audition in 2014 for the post of Assistant Conductor of the BSO. The sight of Mr. Masur — 20 summers after his own BUTI days — standing before the Young Artists Orchestra to conduct Bernstein was as poignant as the sound was glorious. When the music started, one could see on the faces of uninitiated listeners that they had walked into Ozawa Hall expecting to hear a merely good student orchestra. In short order, the students disabused these patrons of their understandably false assumptions. In a situation like this, you know something unusual is happening when people unknown to the musicians reach for their handkerchiefs within a concert’s first ten seconds.

In addition to Ken-David Masur, conductors for Saturday’s concert included David Krauss (BUTI ‘88), Katie Woolf (CFA ‘05), Samuel Solomon (BUTI ‘95, ‘96, ‘97), and Ann Howard Jones. They all did a superb job.

The Young Artists Composition Program

Under the tutelage of BUTI’s Young Artists Composition Program Director, Martin Amlin and Associate Director, Justin Casinghino, BUTI’s composition students enjoyed a well-deserved moment in the spotlight on Sunday, August 7 in the school’s own West Street Theatre. The program featured pieces by ten BUTI student composers, all of whose work evinces the same advanced musicianship as that of the Young Artists Orchestra members who performed it on one unbelievably hot and humid summer day. (They didn’t even break a sweat. Most impressive.)

BUTI students assembled for rehearsal.
BUTI students assembled for rehearsal.

It’s one amazing thing to witness an individual young prodigy making music at a virtuoso level. It’s quite another to share the stage with 100 such wunderkinds. And when this happens at BUTI, the students themselves are the first to notice: “The first couple rehearsals are pretty mind blowing,” one student says of his first day at BUTI. And it is mind blowing, not only for the musicians but also for everyone within earshot. It’s the group dynamic — the synergy of talent resonating with talent — that makes such a confluence of youthful energy so astonishing in its outcome. Anyone can hear it, but no one can explain it. Not fully, anyhow. It is rare and miraculous, but not as rare on the Tanglewood campus as it is nearly everywhere else in the world. If you’ve attended even one BUTI or TMC concert, you’ve experienced this magic. And it’s been there for all to see since day one: Leonard Bernstein was moved by the miraculous things he saw and heard students doing every day at Tanglewood: “The eagerness and joy with which the orchestra absorbed every musical moment gave me great gratification and hope for American youth.”

*   *   *

When Serge Koussevitzky launched his music academy in 1940, humanity’s top priority was to save the world from the Axis Powers. Studying war was more important than studying Beethoven, making mortars more important than making music, drilling soldiers more important than drilling scales. Global warfare presented an existential threat to all humanity, and hope for the future, it seemed, lay solely in the exercise of military power. Koussevitzky understood this as well as anyone, but he also understood that hope for humanity is inextricably linked to its art and culture. Preserving it during wartime, he asserted, was every citizen’s patriotic duty.

Student musicians performing at Ozawa Hall during BUTI's 50 anniversary concert.
Student musicians performing at Ozawa Hall during BUTI’s 50 anniversary concert.

BUTI alumni of all generations say their lives were transformed by their Tanglewood experiences. But listeners, too, are transformed by great music, especially when it flows from the hearts and minds of the world’s most gifted, disciplined, and motivated youth.

Describing music’s value to the world is difficult. As Alex Ross says, “Every art form fights the noose of verbal description.” Still, it’s safe to say that music, wherever you may find it in the world, in whatever form it may take, meets a universal human need. And the need for deeply inspiring, soul-nourishing music is all the more urgent during times of great trouble, when the future looks dim, and hope for humanity has reached its lowest ebb.

Yo-Yo Ma writes, “Now, more than ever, culture matters,” and on his Silkroad Project website, we read, “We know that music cannot stop a bullet or feed the hungry, but it can bring empathy and joy to places where they are in short supply.” In other words, great music may not save the world, but it may make the world worth saving.

The young people who come to BUTI each summer have made it their life’s mission to create great music. They’ve been doing it every year for five decades now, with results that have become the stuff of legend. Let’s hope they continue for at least the next 50 years.


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