Tanglewood Drops the Ball by 9%

Time to Rethink Mix of Classical and Popular Programming

By: - Sep 04, 2013

In a detailed report by Clarence Fanto in the Berkshire Eagle, despite a summer of mostly good weather, with an overall attendance of 318, 439 (not including the disappointing Labor Day weekend), Tanglewood was down by 9%.

There are a number of factors to consider.

For its gala 75th season in 2012 aggressive marketing and special events resulted in Tanglewood’s third best attendance. It peaked in 1998 with 386,870; second-place, in 1997, was 376,533. Last summer's total for its gala 75th anniversary was 375,776.

This year James Taylor took a break from performing but is penciled in for his usual July Fourth Weekend slot for 2014. James Taylor drew 54,385 listeners for his three performances over last year's July 4th weekend.

Those numbers that are hard to make up. But singer/ songwriter Jackson Browne filled in on July 4 with a season high attendance of 17, 316. Surely he will be invited back.

There has been a consistent editorial bias in the Eagle’s reporting comparing classical vs. popular programming. The implied “good” news is that in that 9% decline “…the Boston Symphony and additional professional and student classical presentations gained more than 11 percent.” While popular programming dipped by 14%.

With the legerdemain of fuzzy math there is an editorial slant that implies that Mark Volpe and the BSO are doing a good job of increasing attendance fulfilling their mandate as the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The subtext of the decline of attendance for popular programming is that it doesn’t work.

Closer to the truth is the fact that the same team which programs classical music also books popular artists. It’s time for management to delegate popular programming to entertainment consultants with a deeper knowledge of the field.

Those who advocate more and better popular programming have long been depicted in Eagle reporting as vulgarians with little or no respect for the hallowed ground.

The conservative defenders of classical traditions, which we do indeed understand and respect, went bonkers a few years ago when a bone fide rock band, Wilco, blew the roof off the Shed.

The Chicago based band with roots in the Berkshires would gladly have become as much a Tanglewood fixture as James Taylor, Diana Krall, Garrison Keillor and other proven box office attractions.

Instead Wilco formed a productive alliance with Mass MoCA which this year enjoyed its third, weekend long, Solid Sound Festival.

It is ironic that Wilco initially was regarded as a mistake and aberration by the powers that be. The Solid Sound Festival has been an unqualified success for the museum and community of North Adams. In particular it has been a financial boost to the regional hospitality industry.

To be sure the BSO has endured a long, difficult stretch with a lack of leadership following the ongoing absences and eventual departure of James Levine. In a bold move he has been replaced by the young and dazzling Andris Nelsons.

With a BSO equivalent of the “Curse of the Bambino” his only scheduled appearance this summer, conducting the much anticipated Verdi Requiem, was cancelled because of a freak accident. It is still under negotiation regarding how many appearance Nelsons will make in Lenox next summer. Like most top tier conductors he has his fingers in a number of musical pies.

While one might point to the 14% decline in popular programming it is wrong to conclude that it doesn’t work. It is broken and can be fixed. There is more to it than simply bringing back James Taylor next season.

It is time for Tanglewood to delegate to experts. Let’s face it, who had the brilliant idea to book Grace Potter, Barenaked Ladies, and Patti Austin? As a senior citizen I much enjoyed hearing Joan Baez and the Indigo Girls as well as the geriatric rocker Steve Miller. But there weren’t a lot of youngsters, the ostensible “future” audience, at those concerts.

We had a Wilco conflict and didn’t get to attend the Pops Jerry Garcia Tribute which did well with an attendance of 9,097. I would like to know the numbers for the radio show Wait on August 29. The press office reported a high demand for tickets.

The top drawing concerts for the season underscored proven winners.

17,316 -- Jackson Browne, July 4, 16,154 -- Film Night (John Williams, David Newman, Audra McDonald), Aug. 24.  12,398 -- Boston Symphony (Yo-Yo Ma, Charles Dutoit) Aug. 4. ,12,285 -- Tanglewood on Parade, Aug. 6. , 11,077 -- BSO West Side Story screening, July 13. , 9,854 -- BSO, Beethoven's 9th, Bernard Haitink), Aug. 25. , 9,292 -- Boston Pops, Jerry Garcia Tribute, Keith Lockhart, June 22. , 9,097 -- BSO, Christian Zacharias, pianist-conductor; Aug. 11.

As we suggested in the BFA review it will soon be time to rethink the role of the aging John Williams and the always popular Film Night. If conducting half of the program was an audition will David Newman have enough charisma to sustain that concept?

Other than the Fourth of July weekend, which is planned long in advance, the Monday night bookings in the Shed are scheduled at the last minute. It is a matter of which artists are touring and their schedules. Mondays are tricky off nights for musicians as well as audiences.

Bookings for Ozawa Hall also fill gaps in the classical programming. Other than the annual Mark Morris appearance it was a hit for jazz bass player Esperanza Spalding and a miss for trumpeter and composer of film scores, Terence Blanchard.

Tanglewood management has to reconsider the shoulder seasons before and after the arrival of the BSO. With no classical conflicts it presents a tabula rasa opportunity. There have been popular bookings in mid to late June.

In recent years the July 4th weekend has been a lock with James Taylor. Add to that an evening of Pops. Even better when Taylor is a guest artist. Then throw in an “intimate” Thursday night of James Taylor and friends at Ozawa Hall as a soft launch into the holiday weekend.

This year, despite a solid turnout for Jackson Browne, revealed what happens when Taylor is not a part of the mix.

Volpe and BSO management threw the baby out with the bathwater when they scrapped the annual Tanglewood Jazz Festival for Labor Day Weekend. For many fans of the music it was a delightful, well curated, and important event. There was a pride of recognition of the importance of this unique contribution to the legacy of the arts in America.

Overall TJF struggled to break even. Often the weather over Labor Day weekend can be problematic. But the overhead was relatively modest with a focus on Ozawa Hall and the wonderfully informal concerts featuring emerging artists in the café tent. For the most part there was never the budget to book top tier talent associated with major jazz festivals.

Compared to July 4,th which launches the season, Labor Day weekend, which ends it, presents a different dynamic. By then the seasons of most Berkshire arts organizations have ended or are winding down. Vacationers are packing to return to jobs and school.

Arguably, Tanglewood faltered this year by overbooking Labor Day weekend with unreasonable expectations. It is a total surprise that the Harry Connick, Jr.’s Saturday night concert posted modest numbers. On Tuesday it was announced that he will be a juror on American Idol. He put on one of the best performances of the season. Inserted into a different slot in the schedule, and with more marketing and PR juice, Connick should have given a sold out concert.

While scrapping the annual TJF management attempted an ersatz jazz weekend. Donal Fox, who has appeared previously at TJF, performed his Scarlatti Jazz Project at Seiji Ozawa Hall. He appeared during the afternoon prior to Connick’s evening performance. Clarence Fanto’s Eagle review of Patti Austin and Pops Tribute to Ella Fitzgerald confirmed why it was a mistake.

Hopefully, management will reconsider and bring back the Tanglewood Jazz Festival with improved support and resources.

It will be a long winter before we know what the BSO plans for the future of Tanglewood. Even with deep pockets it must find a way to at least break even. That includes about $3 million annually to preserve and restore infrastructure. Over the next decade it plans to spend $30 million. Let’s face it the venerable Shed is getting pretty shabby.

So there’s a lot more to the Tanglewood story than declining attendance statistics.

We are not advocating triage but, long term, it is time for an extreme makeover.