LENOX, Mass. — Walking through the main entrance of Tanglewood, the legendary summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in western Massachusetts, you pass a bust of the conductor Serge Koussevitzky, a founder of this festival and training ground for generations of musical talent. The sculpture, an homage to tradition, is new this year.
Diagonally across the 524-acre campus from that bust is another recent Tanglewood addition. A brand new entrance to the grounds leads up to the Linde Center, a quartet of buildings made of strawberry-blond wood, glass and metal, which are the first new constructions at Tanglewood since Ozawa Hall, built for chamber music, opened 25 years ago.
Built at a cost of $32 million, the Linde Center is home to the new Tanglewood Learning Institute, created to bring in new audiences through programs of lectures and panels, master classes and films, art classes, even informal meals with artists. TLI aims to give Tanglewood a year-round presence in the Berkshires, providing an additional revenue stream that helps expand its reach.
How do you address and appeal to new generations? You teach them. That, at least, is what many institutions are hoping. And that’s the purpose of both TLI and the Koussevitzky bust, which was installed because it turned out that most of the music lovers who flock to Tanglewood each year had no idea what the man looked like.
For classical music in North America, says Sue Elliott, TLI’s newly minted director, “the primary engine of marketing/ticket-buying inspiration is nostalgia. But I think the power of that is eroding almost visibly. We have to find a way to create meaning and context from [all] that this organization does.”
Tanglewood exerts a powerful hold on those who love it, musicians and audiences alike.
“What is so special with Tanglewood,” says the BSO’s 40-year-old music director, Andris Nelsons, “is somehow the borderlines between the hierarchy, which can sometimes be unhealthy, are blurred. Everyone is together: the orchestra, the students, the great soloists like [Yo-Yo] Ma or [Emanuel] Ax, all eating here together, walking and talking, giving master classes and sharing.”
Part of the challenge for the future is how to maintain this luxurious oasis of musical tradition. Classical music, along with the baby-boomer generation, is increasingly faced with the question of how you preserve tradition — what you do with your parents’ lovely homes and whether your successors will want to live in them. Creating modern additions is one possible solution.
The Linde Center’s buildings, with their vaguely Scandinavian vibe, are conceived as more of a continuation than a departure; they’re even designed by the same firm that created Ozawa Hall, William Rawn Associates. A sinuous concrete walkway flows past the wooden structures, which can open to the outdoors but are also climate-controlled. The buildings are LEED certified and can convert, in a matter of minutes, from concert halls to banquet facilities — creating another potentially lucrative revenue stream. The facility is already booked, says BSO president and chief executive Mark Volpe, for eight fall weddings.
Like the buildings, TLI’s programming is at once new and familiar. This summer, four “immersion weekends” focused on various aspects of programming — at the end of July, the theme was the music of Wagner — offering participants a way to join the Tanglewood vibe that Nelsons describes. You may have heard some of the summer’s guest speakers — Madeleine Albright, Doris Kearns Goodwin — or featured artists, like Renée Fleming, who brought the “Sound Health” program she’s developed with the Kennedy Center up for a Tanglewood outing. But you haven’t heard them here.
Unlike some new facilities attached to performing arts complexes — the Kennedy Center’s REACH extension, opening in September, comes to mind — TLI is not aiming to be radically new or different. Its mission includes expanding the older, more affluent audience it already cultivates in the region.
“This area up here, there are 18,000 second homes,” Volpe says. “There are not that many millennials that have second homes.”
But it is targeting its new audiences with informed focus. Elliott brings to the job not only a lot of ideas but also a lot of hard data about why people do and don’t attend performances. In a career that’s led her from the Houston Grand Opera to the Seattle Opera to the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, she has developed a model of different types of potential audience members and their various learning styles, and is setting out to address the particular needs of different groups.
(When she was at the Seattle Opera, Elliott interviewed 730 employees of Microsoft and Amazon to see why the tech sector was such a hard sell for opera. After learning what moved them to try new experiences — 80 percent said recommendations from a trusted friend — and why the opera wasn’t attracting them — they didn’t see why it was worth their time — she developed a program that aimed to change their minds. “We had an incredible conversion rate from first-time attendee to full subscriber the next season,” she says.)
At TLI, Elliott has developed programs that collaborate with other local institutions, including weekend art classes with IS183 Art School of the Berkshires and films in conjunction with the Berkshire International Film Festival, as well as activities based on Tanglewood’s existing programming. Rather than high-tech bells and whistles (she has gently dissuaded her bosses from focusing on online learning, which, she says, is very expensive to do properly), she is creating activities that emphasize the music, and the personal.
“The most important thing we do is bring people together,” she says. “Our stock in trade is in-person experiences.”
It’s already having an effect. Volpe says that 15 percent of those who have purchased TLI tickets have never been to Tanglewood before.
The concept underlying TLI isn’t new or unique. The Aspen Music Festival and School, another major teaching festival, has been allied with the Aspen Institute since its inception, resulting in a lot of co-created programming. Alan Fletcher, Aspen’s president and CEO, says he can envision co-commissioning projects with TLI, just as Aspen already does with Tanglewood.
For now, though, TLI’s goals are relatively modest. This summer, the center’s projected revenue is $300,000, a small fraction of Tanglewood’s expected $15 million intake. And performing arts leaders tend to be vague when it comes to larger goals, at least on the record. “I want to see it constantly changing,” Volpe said, when asked about his benchmark for success.
Elliott’s goals are more specific.
“I think that understanding how TLI can introduce or welcome people to Tanglewood and the BSO for the first time is an important benchmark,” she says, adding that that’s a fairly standard expectation for a nonprofit performing arts organization.
Beyond what she terms “data-wonky assessments,” she has a personal benchmark.
“When our team starts getting transfers of phone calls from the main switchboard, and when you answer the phone somebody says, ‘So I had this crazy idea, and you were the first team that I thought about calling,’ that’s definitely a measure of success,” she says. “It means that broad awareness has been achieved.”
Another goal is perhaps even more idealistic, and more concrete.
“Chorus America tells us that one in five households in the United States has a choral singer in it,” she says. “So, one of my dreams — based on a very inspiring trip to the song festival in Estonia, and my belief in the power of music to literally change the world — is, the morning of our Beethoven Ninth every year, which closes the BSO residency here, that we have 5,000 people in the Shed in a singalong.”
And with this, Elliott may be pointing toward an important lesson for the field in general. If you want people to remain invested in tradition, continue to create new ones, in the footprint of the old.