Picnicking and Concert-Going at Tanglewood in the Massachusetts Berkshires

The Boston Pops warm up in the Tanglewood Shed.

In some ways, it’s a perfectly ordinary night at Tanglewood: We’ve got a picnic and a blanket and a bottle of wine, and so does everyone around us. The sky is a flawless summer blue, the lawn is a deep, well-tended summer green. But the 250-acre grounds situated just past the lake known as the Stockbridge Bowl are a tad more crowded than usual. Thousands of  people have shown up at this particular mid-summer-night’s dream of a concert, an 80th birthday tribute for John Williams, former conductor of the Boston Pops. Yo-Yo Ma is on the schedule. James Taylor isn’t, but he’ll be here, too, as the not-so-surprising surprise guest. Which makes this, all in all, a concert that neatly sums up the Tanglewood experience.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • It is the quintessential Berkshire summer experience.
  • Wine. Music. A picnic: Easy, stress-free, and fun.
  • Good for families, music lovers — pretty much everyone.

Sure, there’s nothing all that unusual about Yo-Yo Ma and James Taylor performing at Tanglewood: They both have homes nearby, and each is a Tanglewood institution. But they don’t usually show up together. Tonight, Yo-Yo Ma will perform in the quartet playing Williams’s “Air and Simple Gifts,” which was performed at President Obama’s inauguration. And James Taylor will play “You’ve Got a Friend.” (Taylor lives only a few miles away, and credits John Williams for introducing him to the BSO and to his wife, who worked for the orchestra.)

And speaking of special guests: Presidents Obama and Clinton have each prepared video birthday greetings, as did film director George Lucas. Steven Spielberg does one better: He makes it here in person. And Jessye Norman presides, regal. Okay, so I take it back: not quite an ordinary night. Even for Tanglewood, which knows how to put on an event, this particular concert is over the top.

And yet, at the same time, sitting under the stars with music surrounding a crow of thousands, it is somehow the quintessential Tanglewood experience.

Summer Arts in the Berkshires

A family picnics at Tanglewood.

The Berkshires of western Massachusetts are known for their cultural cachet, especially in the summer. Highlights include productions at the Berkshire Theater, dance at Jacob’s Pillow, and concerts at the restored Colonial and Mahaiwe theaters, while town gazebos, farmers’ markets, and restaurants are alive with the sounds of local songsters. Located on the Lenox-Stockbridge border, near the center of the county, Tanglewood is the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra — and it is the core of it all.

Okay: I’m a little prejudiced on the subject: I saw my first ever popular music concert at Tangelwood at the age of 15 (Seals and Crofts), and now live only a short drive away. A sampling of concerts I’ve attended over the years gives a good idea of the programming range: Moody Blues, Shlomo Mintz, Peter Serkin, Dave Brubeck, Wynton Marsalis, and James Galway, for starts. There’s something for everyone.

The popular classics are out in full force — the usual warhorses by Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and other heroes of the classical repertoire. But there’s also more challenging programming: for example, Garrick Ohlsson played all 32 of the Beethoven sonatas here a few years ago, and the programming includes contemporary art music and  less well-known composers. The pop programming keeps current, as well: Recently, James Taylor shared a double bill with Taylor Swift, delighting kids AND their parents. And there’s always some solid jazz programming at the end of the summer.

The Tanglewood Picnic: A Berkshire Tradition

First you check the weather. For a nice night, lawn ticket are inexpensive, and except for the big blockbuster concerts, you can get them at the last minute. (James Taylor, for example, always sells out, even on the lawn; so did the John William event; the Tangelwood schedule specifies which concerts you need special lawn tickets for, and which are open admission.)

You’ll recognize serious Tanglewood regulars by their accoutrements. The regulars have it all down to a science, some even dragging wheeled wagons stuffed with folding chairs (the fabric kind are most portable), blankets, wine bottles, an endless supply of delicacies, and proper tableware and cutlery.

Or you can go minimal, with a beach towel, a picnic basket, and paper plates. Local wine shops and groceries have tons of convenient picnic food and supplies, some already prepacked for concert-going convenience.

Shed or Lawn?

The traditional Tanglewood experience is also the cheapest: Lawn tickets are around $20. You can lay on your blanket, and get lost in the music while watching the night sky. Unless it rains, that is: Tanglewood is an outdoor venue, and there isn’t much cover in case of inclement weather. Shed tickets let you enjoy the music, rain or shine.

Shed tickets also give you better sound and let you see what’s going on on stage (although video screens are provided for lawn-sitters). I tend to prefer lawn tickets for the big warhorse classical orchestra concerts and for pop concerts. For solo instrumentalists or chamber music, I prefer to sit in the shed. Either way, with a picnic, a couple of friends, and the good luck of pleasant weather, a summer evening at Tanglewood is a perfect way to enjoy musical stars under a canopy of the celestial variety.

Practicalities

  • In addition to the Koussevitzky Shed (the covered ticketed seating area), there are chamber music concerts in the smaller Ozawa Hall. Check the schedule for chamber concerts, as well as the schedule of open rehearsals and lectures.
  • Parking is free. For popular concerts, getting there early saves a bit of stress.
  • Tanglewood is located just outside of Lenox.  There are plenty of inns, hotels, and B and Bs in the area: In addition to Lenox, Lee, Strockbridge (home of the Norman Rockwell Museum, the former Alice’s Restaurant of Arlo Guthrie fame, and the historic Red Lion Inn), and Great Barrington are nearby.
  • Ticket prices range from around $20 for lawn seats (there’s some variation depending on who is performing) to upwards of $100 for so-called box seats in the shed for gala performances. The program is announced in January, and tickets go on sale in late January or early February.
  • Food and wine is available.
  • You can rent chairs to sit on the lawn.

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