In another sign the pandemic is slowly loosening its grip on the region, the Boston Symphony Orchestra announced Friday that live music will return to Tanglewood this summer for a shortened festival season, a hopeful note after more than a year without live performances.
The abbreviated six-week season, running July 9 through Aug. 16, will include roughly half the festivities normally on offer at the BSO’s summer home in the Berkshires. Full details will be announced April 8, though the season’s broad outline features several Tanglewood mainstays. Music Director Andris Nelsons has committed to eight performances, and the season will include concerts by the BSO, Boston Pops, guest artists, the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, as well as recitals and chamber music. Tickets go on sale to the general public May 17.
Even so, concertgoers will find a festival transformed by the virus. Masks will be mandatory. Concerts will be limited to no more than 80 minutes with no intermissions. All performances will take place in the open-air Koussevitzky Music Shed, and there will be audience capacity restrictions in the Shed and on the adjoining lawn.
Given the virus’s potential for aerosol transmission, this year’s Tanglewood festival will not include works that feature vocalists. Significantly, that means the festival will not close with a BSO performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, a joyful tradition that for years has marked the end of the season.
The reduced festival is bound to be a loss leader for the symphony, which outgoing BSO president and CEO Mark Volpe said stood to lose several million dollars.
“Why do we exist,” said Volpe, who will retire in June. “It’s an investment in the mission. It’s an investment in our recovery.”
The symphony’s board of trustees voted unanimously Thursday to move forward with the summer season. But Volpe said the BSO has been tentatively planning the summer season since November, consulting with public health experts over the past several months, and developing a reopening safety plan with the healthy buildings advisory firm 9 Foundations.
“There is no recovery without the arts,” Joseph G. Allen, an associate professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and founder of 9 Foundations, said in a statement. “By prioritizing the health and safety of the Tanglewood community with comprehensive public health policies, the Boston Symphony Orchestra has an opportunity to once again unite the Berkshire community through music.”
In addition to mandatory masks and social distancing, other safety protocols will include a new contactless digital ticketing system, enhanced air filtration and ventilation, deep cleaning, and, when necessary, testing and monitoring musicians. Symphony officials said they did not anticipate requiring proof of vaccination to enter the Tanglewood campus, though this season marks the first time smoking will be prohibited across the grounds.
The BSO will incorporate other pandemic-era innovations, and for the first time the festival will offer live-stream performances through the orchestra’s BSO NOW digital portal.
Volpe added that the symphony is in contact with state leaders and would remain flexible as public health advisories evolve in the coming months. He said the orchestra was “committed to tracking all aspects of the virus,” and would monitor the science, recommended protocols, and restrictions, “updating ticket buyers every step of the way.”
“It’s a dynamic situation,” said Volpe, whose successor, Gail Samuel, starts on June 21. “The good news for us is we have an outside venue.”
Even so, seating at performances will be reduced — officials said parties will be spaced in the Shed, and concertgoers on the lawn will receive recyclable ground covers “to help establish appropriate distance.” Although donors of $100 or more will be offered advanced ticket sales, the BSO will limit some preseason ticket purchases, and will offer several free- and reduced-price ticket programs.
Since abruptly closing Symphony Hall last March, the BSO, like most arts organizations, has endured major losses. The orchestra has suffered an estimated $51.5 million in lost revenue. It’s undergone a wrenching round of layoffs, negotiated a new contract with musicians to reduce their pay, and canceled numerous concerts.
One of the most devastating blows came in May, when the BSO decided to cancel the entire in-person season at Tanglewood, which annually draws some 340,000 people and brings more than $100 million in economic activity to the Berkshires.
Last year’s cancellation marked the first time the summer festival was interrupted since the World War II era, when its performance schedule was curtailed or canceled in its entirety. When the festival finally reopens in July, it will be a triumph for the organization, bringing to a close one of the most painful chapters in the BSO’s 140-year history.
“I join all my colleagues at the Boston Symphony Orchestra in celebrating this moment,” Nelsons said in a statement. “I so look forward to welcoming our dear music community, as well as first-time visitors, to performances with our beloved Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood this summer and experiencing the power of music like never before.”