To see the before and after graphic of the Tanglewood Shed, click here.
“Never let a good crisis go to waste.” It’s a political maxim whose spirit was invoked in 1937, when a fierce storm repeatedly interrupted an all-Wagner concert under a tent at the Berkshire Symphonic Festival, at the time the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s new summer home. During one intermission, Gertrude Robinson Smith, a festival founder, took the stage to avow that “this storm has proved conclusively the need for a shed.”
The needed funds were quickly raised.
Since its completion 75 years ago, the Koussevitzky Music Shed (as it was rededicated in 1988) has been the central location for orchestral activities at Tanglewood (as it would come to be known), and a welcome supplier of shelter during lousy weather. Capable of seating 5,073 concertgoers, its capacity dwarfs that of Symphony Hall, the BSO’s hometown venue.
And yet, there has always been something a bit invisible about the Shed. Walk onto the grounds for the first time — or even for the hundredth — and your eye goes immediately to the iconic lawn, where the communion with nature is immediate and the trees seem to stand in silent judgment of the musical proceedings.
But the Shed has its own particular marvels, which emerge if you spend a few silent moments there, as I did on a recent evening. The seats fan out in front of the stage, giving the place a broader sweep than that of Symphony Hall’s rectangular box. The design is all industrial austerity — it is a shed, after all — but the Edmund Hawes Talbot Orchestra Canopy, whose panels surround the stage and the first few rows of seats, adds a bit of modernistic chic.
The canopy, which was added in 1959, also produces a sound that is unexpectedly intimate. That was a surprise to me when I heard Seiji Ozawa conduct Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in 1989. The quiet moments were entirely audible from my seat near the back of the Shed. (So, unfortunately, were the whispers of some bored ushers.) The sonic picture had more detail than what I had heard on the lawn the previous summer during Beethoven’s Ninth.
But the Shed can also do big, which sometimes gives it a leg up on Symphony Hall. Such was the case with James Levine’s 2006 Tanglewood performance of Schoenberg’s massive “Gurrelieder,” where the sound seemed to stretch right out to the surrounding mountains in the Berkshires. Those who marveled could be thankful that, three quarters of a century ago, a group of patrons didn’t let a crisis go to waste.