LENOX — We somehow missed the entire summer concert season at Tanglewood, the warm-weather Berkshires home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The BSO is back in Boston now, but the grounds of Tanglewood remain open to the public. The manicured lawns and woodsy paths of the campus helped us get our Berkshires fix with a bucolic fall outing. Birdsong, insect trills, and even the wind whispering through the canopies of the trees conspired to create a kind of autumn concerto.
But Tanglewood didn’t quite seem like Tanglewood without a flourish of horns and a powerful swell of strings. Fortunately, the BSO had us covered. We signed onto the BSO website to stream a musical program of Sibelius, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Copland, Debussy, and Ravel from a Soundscape link. The selections were spot-on for wandering in this Druidic landscape of majestic trees and green lawns rimmed by mountain horizons.
The program began with the first movement from Sibelius Symphony No. 2 in D, where a simple pastoral three-note theme builds into full orchestral majesty in slightly more than 10 minutes. It seemed a perfect fit. In fact, the whole program provides more than 100 minutes of largely Romantic orchestral music for walking around in this capital-R Romantic landscape. We felt like we had our own score for a silent movie — except that this set was in full and living color.
A streaming Tanglewood walking tour is not yet available, so we navigated on our own using a map from the BSO website. (It’s also posted on the grounds.) Key landmarks tipped us off to both the early days of the Berkshires as a summer retreat for wealthy rusticators and to the history of the grand campus that plays such an outsize role in American orchestral music. A bust of Serge Koussevitzky, BSO music director (1924-49) and founder of Tanglewood, greeted us at the main gate. Sculpted by Penelope Jencks and installed in 2019, it was the last of three sculptures commissioned by Boston Pops Laureate Conductor John Williams.
Once we passed through the main entrance, we found ourselves in the storied Tanglewood landscape. Massive red oaks, Norway spruce trees, and skyscraping white pines towered overhead. Their thick trunks had been carefully manicured over the years to create vast glades, shady canopies, and open sight lines through each stand of trees. We veered right to stroll up to the Tappan mansion.
During concert season, the mansion serves as the visitor center. Even though it was closed, we could behold the same expansive mountain view as the Tappan family who built the estate in the mid-19th century. They called their property ‶Tanglewood″ and the name stuck when their descendants offered the house and grounds to the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the winter of 1936 as a home for a summer music series.
The formal gardens behind the manse constitute a perfect pocket of gentility with the maze of hedges punctuated by surprising whimsies. A sundial is cleverly interactive. If you stand in one of the blocks indicating a month, your shadow tells the hour in Eastern Standard Time. The early 20th-century ‶whispering bench″ is even more magical. The graceful curve permits people sitting at opposite ends to whisper to each other with bell-like clarity. We’ve been told it’s a favorite of small children and of lovers exchanging sentiments best not overheard. The setting couldn’t be better. The view over the high hedge behind the bench follows the undulating ridge of the Berkshire Hills.
We are hardly the only people to favor this tranquil corner of the Tanglewood campus. When Pulitzer-Prize-winning composer Aaron Copland died in 1990, his ashes were scattered on the lawns behind the Tappan house. From the sundial we strolled beneath a grape arbor to a bust of Copland in an intimate hedged nook. Dedicated in 2011, the bust was the first of the Williams commissions and the first permanent statue on the Tanglewood grounds. Those firsts seemed fitting. Copland was a powerful force in the development of the summer music festival. After the educational arm of Tanglewood was created in 1940, he led the composition faculty for 25 years.
The forest idyll continued along the path to the Lions Gate and up along the edge of the campus bounded by Hawthorne Road. Ultimately, we emerged from the wood to meander up to Highwood Manor, built in the 1840s as one of the first of the Berkshires ‶cottages.″ The mansion was sited for its commanding view, which is undiminished by time. Alas, the building was closed, so we didn’t get to see the remaining statue commissioned by John Williams. It honors Leonard Bernstein, who taught and performed at Tanglewood nearly every summer for 50 years.
After the Highwood estate was added in 1986, the Tanglewood campus expanded with teaching and studio buildings as well as the imposing Seiji Ozawa Hall. The 1,200-seat concert hall with a gracefully arched roof nestles in a small dell, impressive even in its postseason silence.
Following the Lois Schaefer Walking Path, we encountered the iconic music shed and lawn where most summer concerts are held. After a near-disaster with rain in Tanglewood’s inaugural 1937 season, patrons raised funds to build this shelter for the orchestra and audience. It debuted in 1938 and is now called The Serge Koussevitzky Music Shed.
Pre-concert Tanglewood picnics are legendary. Without a concert on the grounds, we had our pick of spots. We settled under a tree. There are plenty of them, after all. The roughly 1,100 trees on the campus are key to the property’s rustic charm.
But before we unfolded our blanket, we took advantage of the other Soundscape link on the BSO website. The 13-plus minute ‶Meditation with Trees″ is a soothing mindfulness talk by Micah Mortali, a faculty member at the nearby Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. Some of the Tanglewood trees are more than 150 years old, he noted. ‶Imagine what these trees have seen in their lifetime,″ he intoned.
Or what they have heard in this fabled musical venue.
At that, we cued up the the final work in the BSO performances, the opening movement of Brahms Symphony No. 2 in D, and laid out our picnic. Orchestra, picnic, and trees: our Tanglewood experience was complete.
If you go …
297 West St., Lenox
Grounds open daily 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Free.
Links to audio stream and walking meditation: www.bso.org/tanglewood/visit/when-youre-here/grounds-tours.
WHERE TO STAY
Seven Hills Inn
40 Plunkett St., Lenox
Open through November. Double rooms from $159.
Classic Berkshires cottage transformed to modern inn with picturesque grounds next to The Mount. Frequent guests of the inn have included Leonard Bernstein, Beverly Sills, and Seiji Ozawa. Modest Terrace House rooms offer all the amenities of the historic estate at a significant discount over Manor House rooms.
WHERE TO BUY PICNIC FIXINGS
Loeb’s Food Town
42 Main St., Lenox
Open 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 7 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday
Deli sandwiches, salads, and excellent cheese selection, including local High Lawn Farm cheeses.
Nejaime’s Wine Cellars
60 Main St., Lenox
Open 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday
Pre-order themed picnics ranging from French Country to Backpack Snack of cheese and cold cuts. Deli counter has a huge cheese and charcuterie selection as well as prepared salads for composing your own picnic on the spot.
Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.