In a major loss for the region’s summer performing arts landscape, the Boston Symphony Orchestra has canceled this year’s Tanglewood festival for the first time since World War II, due to concerns over the spread of COVID-19.
This year, in place of the usual 10 weeks densely packed with live events, the BSO will be offering an online version of the summer festival, with free and paid audio and video content beginning on July 1 via www.tanglewood.org.
“All of us at the Boston Symphony Orchestra deeply wish we could have found a way to present performances at Tanglewood this summer," said BSO president Mark Volpe, in a video statement. “We explored every possible scenario to try to save all or part of our concert schedule, but with the health of the greater Tanglewood community as our highest priority, performances with audiences are just not possible.”
“I will dearly miss my wonderful orchestra, staff colleagues, and the greater Tanglewood and Berkshire community," said music director Andris Nelsons, also in a video statement. “It is the amazing spirit of our Tanglewood family that inspires me and all the musicians of the orchestra.”
Established in 1937, the festival is an iconic New England summer destination, as central to many music fans as the beaches of Cape Cod. It typically draws some 340,000 visitors each year to its vast emerald lawns as well as soloists and guest ensembles from around the world.
In addition to the broader cultural loss of a season of live music-making, the cancellation will bring significant economic consequences for the orchestra and the larger Berkshires region.
The BSO anticipates a loss of $12.4 million in expected ticket revenue alone. When that number is combined with additional earned revenue losses from the canceled Boston Pops season, tours, Symphony Hall concerts and rentals, and an expected decrease in charitable contributions, the orchestra is anticipating a total loss of $29.2 million. Last month, the BSO announced a series of cost-saving measures including pay cuts of approximately 25 percent for musicians through the end of August, and 70 employees have been furloughed. In an attempt to address at least a portion of the major budget shortfall, several BSO board members have pledged to match all new annual contributions and ticket donations between today and Aug. 31.
Given Tanglewood’s outsize draw as a tourist destination, this year’s cancellation will surely ripple through the tourism and hospitality sectors of the local economy. According to the BSO’s own economic impact study, Tanglewood performances and operations generate $103 million for the region every summer and between 930 and 1,100 jobs. Of the festival’s estimated 340,000 yearly visitors, 84 percent come from outside of Berkshire County, and 49 percent from outside the state.
“We are a year-round destination, but our peak season is from Memorial Day to Labor Day,” explained Jonathan Butler, president of 1Berkshire, a county-wide economic development organization. “And we typically consider Tanglewood the largest individual driver for overall spending in the Berkshires, so this will matter.”
Previously scheduled to run from June 19 through Aug. 28, Tanglewood was to feature eight weekends of BSO and Pops performances in the Koussevitzky Music Shed as well as extensive chamber music offerings in Ozawa Hall, a five-day Festival of Contemporary Music, and a second summer of full programming at the recently established Tanglewood Learning Institute. Every summer Tanglewood also runs an academy for advanced musical training known as the Tanglewood Music Center (its fellows for this year have been invited to return in 2021) and hosts an affiliated program for teenage musicians known as the Boston University Tanglewood Institute. In addition to the festival’s classical offerings, Ringo Starr, Trey Anastasio, James Taylor, Judy Collins, and Arlo Guthrie were scheduled to appear.
Rather than canceling the festival outright, the BSO has chosen to invest in an online alternative that will include new content recorded at Tanglewood’s Linde Center, new recitals from stages around the world, and archival audio and video from past performances, streamed with a schedule designed to loosely mirror the rhythms of the festival. Virtual recitalists will include cellist Yo-Yo Ma; pianists Emanuel Ax, Daniil Trifonov, and Conrad Tao; and violinists Joshua Bell, Gil Shaham, and Augustin Hadelich. A Friday-night series will bring recitals by individual BSO players. And the orchestra will tap its archives to stream previously recorded performances by the BSO and Tanglewood Music Center fellows.
“It’s a strategy shift,” Volpe told the Globe in a phone interview on Friday afternoon. “Since we’re no longer able to share the power and emotional impact of music with live audiences, our focus has to remain on fulfilling our mission through media. Somehow we have to keep the BSO, the Pops, and Tanglewood alive by connecting, through content, with audiences.”
Ironically, as concert halls remain shuttered, the orchestra may now be reaching more listeners than ever before via its digital channels. According to Volpe, the new content already made available on bso.org since the closure began has led to a dramatic increase in online traffic. “That being said,” he added, “the business model for how you monetize that traffic is incredibly challenging.”
The BSO is requesting that ticket holders consider donating tickets back to the orchestra, or accept credits toward future performances, but refunds will also be available. The festival’s bucolic grounds will also remain open to the public this summer, with a restricted number of visitors permitted on weekends and Wednesday mornings.
There are no festivals directly comparable with Tanglewood in the United States, but other major summer classical events have already been called off due to coronavirus, including the Chicago Symphony’s Ravinia Festival, the New York Philharmonic’s Vail residency, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Hollywood Bowl, which was canceled this week for the first time in its 98-year history.