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A place where music feels at home

Joseph Silverstein, the concertmaster and assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony and chairman of the Berkshire center faculty, may have stated it best: "Koussevitsky would be very pleased at the proof of how good his idea was. He'd be happy to see it getting bigger and more vibrant than ever."

He was talking about a summer 40 years ago when Serge Koussevitsky, then music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, fulfilled a longstanding dream of his -- to found a music school, under the aegis of a great orchestra, where students could learn from the finest musicians in the world.

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Much has happened to the world of the arts, and the world in general, since that early summer day in 1940 when the first season of the Berkshire Music Center was officially inaugurated. Situated on the lawns of the sprawling Tanglewood estate which was by then the summer home of the Boston Symphony, the center included in its first class Lukas Foss and Leonard Bernstein.

From then on, an extraordinary list of some of the most prestigious names in music have participated in the program, including the current director of the Boston Symphony, Seiji Ozawa.

Aaron Copland came on as head of composition that first season, and the list of composers who have spent time at the center, either on the faculty or as student participants, is equally impressive. Koussevitsky included an opera program that has since gone the way of so many other lofty ideals that have perished under the pressure of financial solvency. But beyond that, the essence of what he sought to establish has remained to this date.

Wherever one goes around the center, whomever one asks, all are agreed that the spirit of Koussevitsky permeates this exceptional place. One of the reasons must be the continuity. A generous share of the original faculty was still active when Erich Leinsdorf took over the Boston Symphony from Charles Munch in 1962. The latter had benignly neglected the school. Leinsdorf was dedicated to education, and it has been uphill ever since.

The reins of the Berkshire Music Center are now in the hand of Gunther Schuller, who was invited by Leinsdorf to take over Copland's slot in the early '60s. He is artistic director of a plant that has grown enormously, and he is fiercely dedicated to scrupulous standards.

Schuller has been in the news of late for some strong comments on what has been happening to the spirit of musicmaking in this money-conscious age. His opening-ceremonies statements have received wide exposure, but more to the point , they have had a welcome audience among the students who arrive and find an advocate of artistic integrity at the helm of this imposing operation. Schuller notes that after Munch's tenure, where things neither improved nor deteriorated, Leinsdorf brought the energy and the focus only a music director could have brought to the center. Things became more concentrated. Whereas Leinsdorf became too busy to keep that detailed sort of focus seen in his first seasons, Ozawa has kept a very active part in the goings-on.

Schuller also points out that the close proximity of the composing fellows gives the students a new perspective on new music. They can actually grill the composer to find out what he meant and why he wrote something that way.

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"One of the happiest things in my life is to see that responsiveness. It's so genuine," Schuller states with a warm smile.

Another part of the center's experience is the Festival Orchestra. The students get a chance to work with the four to six conducting fellows on hand each summer, and also with many of the visiting conductors performing at the BSO concerts. For many of the students a particular performance of the Brahmns Fourth or the Mahler First is probably the first time he or she has played the work.

"One of the reasons I stay here," Schuller remarks, "is that what happens here is a magnificent sorting out of talent. . . . These kids come here often with spotty or lopsided previous experience. They go back into their communities and very often they become the leaders . . . they become protagonists for ongoing [musical] development [in those communities]."

Silverstein observes that "the Tanglewood experience is carried with these kids into the profession, and I see evidences of it everywherem I go in the country." He will be chatting with members of an orchestra he's just conducted, and someone will come up and say, "There was something that happened to me at Tanglewood . . .!"

Silverstein also remarks on the uniqueness of the classroom situation: With the BSO players as teachers, the students can be told something in a lesson, then can go and hear that teacher actually do it onstage. Silverstein notes the difficulty in defining his actual responsibility in a school "that lasts eight weeks, has an 80-percent turnover and has to, in certain ways, redefine itself periodically."

What makes up the center's umbrella?

First there's the fellowship program, for instrumentalists, singers, composers, and conductors. The latter two are strictly limited to a small number (4 or 5 conductors, up to 6 composers). Applicants are then invited to audition for Mr. Schuller and other members of the staff, and from that pool, some 140 are chosen. The fellows are asked to pay as much of their room and board as possible, but the tuition is fully underwritten.

The seminar program gives a chance for those not up to the rigors of the fellowship program a chance to experience Tanglewood, but with no aid in tuition costs. The Boston University Tanglewood Institute is designed for younger students.

As Ortner points out, the problems of coordinating it all are many. There's the housing problem (dorms are spread over a large area), the problem of busing the kids to the center and back, of scheduling sessions, classes, seminars, etc. , around the busy schedule of the BSO players, and so on.

But perhaps most demanding of all is finding new sources of funding for this international gathering. On the fellowship list (each entry represents a minimum of $1,500) are banks, corporations, and companies that give aid in a general or even a specific way -- say, sponsoring a participant from a certain state or country. The students come from as far away as the People's Republic of China and Australia, such is the worldwide acclaim of the Berkshire center.

One of the conducting fellows, Nelson Marcio Nirenburg, applied because of that world renown, and has passed some very special moments working or talking with the likes of Ozawa, Silverstein, and Bernstein (who was visiting for the 40 th anniversary celebration in July). "People know that we are here, ready to do our share of the work, and they let us do it," as professionals, he continues, not students.

What is it that keeps the center so special after 40 years?

Schuller refers to the uniqueness of young working with old in a teacher-pupil relationship that is slightly blurred. Ortner observes the ever-increasing technical accomplishments (and the odd weaknesses that emerge as side effects: "Their ear training is often quite awful," he notes in a phrase echoed by Schuller).

Silverstein refers to the "stimulation of working with students from educational institutions all over the world, and how his teaching "has improved by observing [their] strengths and weaknesses." Again, Ortner stresses "quality, not quantity. BMC is as big as any of us wants it to be. We are bound by our performance limits, and by the imperative of never abrogating them."

Schuller remains awestruck that Koussevitsky's "vision was so perfect in its components structure, with the artists, young and old, sitting here activating the whole thing!"

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