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history repeating

At Tanglewood, still a lovely blend of art and atmosphere

Use the scroller on the image above of the Tanglewood grounds to see the festival in 1972, left, and 2011, right.

By David Weininger | Globe Correspondent

My first memories of Tanglewood are both obscure and precise. They came in the late 1980s, when I was a high school student in Worcester. For two consecutive summers, some like-minded friends and I piled into someone’s improbably still-running car to make the pilgrimage to Lenox to hear Ninth Symphonies — Beethoven one year, Mahler the next. Seiji Ozawa conducted both.

Musically, my recollections are close to nil. Were the performances revelatory, lackluster, illuminating, routine? No idea. But what I remember so clearly is the profound sense of space that Tanglewood imparts to its visitors. Step out onto its famous lawn and the vastness of nature embraces you, the Berkshires silent and imposing in the near distance. But when the music begins there is an intimacy that, against the odds, makes the listening experience deeply personal, even when the clinking of your neighbor’s wine glass merges with the sound of the violins emanating from the Koussevitzky Music Shed.

Tanglewood’s sense of space and place hasn’t changed much over the last few decades. The music and the scenery work together so powerfully that they can make even routine performances feel special. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t hurdles to be overcome. The weather can hijack even the most promising event (as is happening in the 1955 photo above). And the lawn, for all its charms, can be a tough place to sink deeply into a performance (as may be happening in the more recent picture).

But Tanglewood’s spatial poetics, the way in which art and the outdoors blend, go a long way to helping listeners prevail against the obstacles of summer concertgoing. That atmosphere is as much a part of its tradition as Ozawa or Leonard Bernstein. Or James Taylor, for that matter.

As a music critic, I now spend most of my Tanglewood visits in the shed, hashing through the kind of details that seemed indistinct a quarter century ago. But whenever I’m there, I never forget to step out onto the lawn, amid the glorious Berkshires air, just to remind myself what the place feels like.

David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com.

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