It took this Boston boy almost 40 years to venture past Exit 3 on the Massachusetts Turnpike. I had fallen in love with the “Bernstein/Beethoven” series on PBS and the man himself — Leonard not Ludwig — was coming to Tanglewood in 1983 to conduct “The Eroica” with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, along with Bernstein’s own “Jeremiah” and Copland’s “Outdoor Overture.”
It was the beginning of a 35-year love affair with Bernstein, Tanglewood and the Berkshires. It was, along with a handful of other concerts like Dylan's going electric, a life-changer. I had seen the BSO many times before, but this time it seemed as if Bernstein and the orchestra weren't just in sync with Beethoven, but with the whole magnificent landscape. Was there, I wondered, another place on the planet where art and nature blended together so organically? If so, to quote Tina Fey, I want to go to there.
A couple of years later I began timing summer vacations for Bernstein in the Berks. I started taking in what was then the Big Three of Theater in the region: Shakespeare & Company (then at The Mount, Edith Wharton’s digs) in Lenox, Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge and Williamstown Theatre Festival.
Because of the Bernstein centennial, this summer has a particularly strong appeal, though the cultural appeal of Western Mass. goes well beyond Tanglewood. Here are some of the highlights:
The Bernstein Centennial
The BSO and Boston Pops have gone all-in on Bernstein this summer, which is only natural. He grew up in Boston and environs, becoming enamored of Arthur Fiedler and the Pops, and he eventually studied with legendary BSO leader Serge Koussevitzky and went on to be the charismatic teacher of classes there, while conducting the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra and the BSO, always events in themselves. Andris Nelsons and Keith Lockhart have a natural way with Bernstein; they've already done him proud in a number of concerts devoted to his music. You can see how Bernstein’s emotiveness made the conducting world safe for Nelsons’ expressiveness on the podium. (Not all would say that’s a good thing.) For more details, read my colleague Andrea Shea's preview of the summer of love for Lenny here.
There is also a huge all-star gala on his 100th birthday Aug. 25 that includes Audra McDonald, Yo-Yo Ma and Midori, who took part in another momentous Bernstein concert in 1986 when she was 14. Unfazed by the humidity snapping her violin strings, she kept grabbing new violins and continued masterfully playing his “Serenade,” with the composer conducting.
What I’m most curious about is whether conductor Stefan Asbury and the TMC Orchestra, whom Bernstein delighted in teaching and conducting, can convert me to his late opera, “A Quiet Place” on Aug. 9, his sequel to the brilliant 1952 one-act “Trouble in Tahiti.” Let’s see if they can take the “grudging” out of my grudging admiration for the "Quiet" add-on. There are no reservations at all about the Aug. 18 all-Bernstein concert featuring the Boston Ballet in “Fancy Free,” his 1944 collaboration with choreographer Jerome Robbins, with whom he went on to create that little ditty, “West Side Story.”
I’m also curious this summer how Nelsons deals with Mahler’s titanic Symphony No. 3 on Aug. 24. We have a better sense of what he’ll do with Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4 on Aug. 17, thanks to the latest, excellent CD in the cycle for Deutsche Grammophon.
Beyond Tanglewood, the Berkshire Opera Festival arrives with “Rigoletto” from Aug. 25 to 31 at Pittsfield’s Colonial Theatre. The Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington has a strong lineup of music in all genres. And Jacob's Pillow is to dance what Tanglewood is to classical music, except that it welcomes different companies to Becket instead of centering on one organization. Bernstein, in fact, shares his centennial with his choreographic cohort Jerome Robbins, who's honored by the "Stars of American Ballet" from Aug. 22-26.
My introduction to Shakespeare & Company had nothing to do with the Bard and very little to do with theater. A friend told me that this troupe at Edith Wharton's Lenox digs, The Mount, put on her short stories in the afternoon with tea and cookies in between. What we later found out was that they put on the best Shakespeare productions anywhere in the state, thanks in part to the psychodramatic leanings of their visionary founder, Tina Packer. She also put together a great troupe featuring such first-rate actors as Jonathan Epstein, Tod Randolph and Allyn Burrows, who is now the artistic director, a position he previously held at Actors' Shakespeare Project in Boston. After a contentious battle with Edith Wharton Restoration, the company moved down the road. (The two entities are getting along better these days but, alas, no more tea and cookies.)
This season I missed Randolph as Lady Macbeth (at the Tina Packer Playhouse through Aug. 5), but fortunately got to see Epstein at the full height of his jaw-dropping powers in Strindberg's "Creditors" (through Aug. 12 at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre). The 19th (and early 20th) century Swedish author of "Miss Julie" and "The Father" certainly had his issues with women — the adjective "misogynistic" is frequently attached to his bios — but director Nicole Ricciardi, adaptor David Greig and excellent S&C veteran actor Kristin Wold make the lesser-known "Creditors" all but a #MeToo precursor. Epstein plays an almost Mephistophelean character who convinces an artist that he needs to stand up to his "castrating" wife. Once Wold's character appears it's obvious that she's anything but that. The play is a little much at times, but still a must-see production, one that makes Edward Albee's indebtedness to Strindberg dramatically apparent.
The company seems to be in excellent artistic shape under Burrows and I'm particularly looking forward to his second outdoor production in the Outdoor Garden, "As You Like It," from Aug. 9 - Sept. 2. I loved their inaugural production there last summer, "The Tempest."
All the Berkshires theaters are worth checking out. Williamstown Theatre Festival is currently hosting a wonderfully entertaining production of "Seared" (through Aug. 4), taking us into the kitchen of a boutique Brooklyn bistro where four characters clash over where gastronomy ends and economy begins. I'm betting the Chester Theatre Company does justice to Annie Baker's sharp play "The Aliens" (Aug. 9-19) and I'm hoping to get back in the fall for Luigi Pirandello's "Naked" at the Berkshire Theatre Group's Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge (Sept. 27-Oct. 28).
But I particularly gravitate to Barrington Stage Company, which pulled up stakes from Sheffield and is now a big part of the attempt to make Pittsfield an arts destination, and to make arts part of the Pittsfield personality, among all economic classes there. What artistic director Julianne Boyd has done since the theater's inception in 1995 is truly remarkable. The musicals are every bit as good as Diane Paulus' at the American Repertory Theater. Boyd's "Cabaret" is the best I've ever seen. The company oversaw the world premiere of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" and brought the recent Broadway hit, "On the Town" to life." Boyd has already successfully visited "West Side Story" in 2007 and I can't wait to see what she does with it in the Bernstein centennial season. Also like Paulus, Boyd is committed to contemporary plays that visit the political issues of the day, and here Boyd is even more successful. The Berkshires are alarmingly white, but the arts institutions, particularly theater, help make it less so.
The world premiere of Lloyd Suh's "The Chinese Lady" (through Aug. 11 at the St. Germain stage) under Ralph B. Peña's perfectly paced direction is the narrative of a character based on the country's first female Chinese immigrant who tours the country hoping to bridge the gap between East and West. What's really going on, though, is a story of horrific betrayal by her American producers and, in fact, the betrayal of Chinese immigrants by America itself. Suh's politics are obvious, with words like "appropriation" and "gaze" (as in Caucasian male gaze) underscoring the agenda. But Suh's poetic writing and Shannon Tye's superlatively subtle acting make the history come to life in a profoundly moving way.
History also comes to life in Williamstown in an exquisite exhibit at The Clark, "Women Artists in Paris 1850-1900" (through Sept. 3). The narrative that we've been handed down from art history is that, with the exception of a handful of women like Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot, men had all the fun until the 20th century when the art world began to open up.
But the Clark broadens the conversation by showing that the more famous names were not outliers. Any number of female artists can hold their own with the big boys of the era, from impressionists like Marie Bracquemond to modernists like Paula Modersohn-Becker. Beyond individuals, the exhibit tells the story of women in an Edith Wharton frame of mind, psychologically exploring their status as wives and mothers while getting ready to burst out of those definitions. Take a look at Amélie Beaury-Saurel's "Into the Blue" (above) where a woman stares into space while (horrors) smoking a cigarette, as if contemplating the future of women's role in society. Julie Delance-Feurgard's "The Marriage" gives that institution a patina of is-that-all-there-is. And just as the Clark 2014 remodeling does a better job of uniting the museum and the landscape, a relatively new emphasis on contemporary art exhibits helps tie in past and present.
The Clark is just one of the Big Three museums of the Northern Berkshires. You can pair it with the Williams College Museum of Art in town, but MASS MoCA in North Adams is worth a day unto itself. (A day and even a night as there are excellent music, film and other events at night.)
It's impossible to walk into The Bookstore in Lenox without breaking into a grin. (And if you visit the Get Lit wine bar in the back room you'll probably walk out with one as well.) As you walk in the door, owner Matthew Tannenbaum holds court with celebrities and hoi polloi, residents and tourists, as if to say anyone who wants to talk about books (or most anything else) is welcome there. And if you want to buy a book, well pull up a stool and have an even longer chat. You may or may not find the latest best-seller, but you will find a collection that, while reflecting the taste of one man, embraces the totality of literary elegance while never taking itself too seriously. There are book stores in virtually every town in the Berkshires, but there's only one Bookstore. Alas, Tannenbaum's musical counterpart in Williamstown, Hal March, gave up the ghost of Toonerville Trolleys vinyl and CDs, selling his inventory to a North Adams couple who plan to open a new space up yonder.
You'll also find a plethora of good eats in every Berkshires town, but my two favorites are in opposite corners of the county. I liked Mezze Bistro + Bar more when it was right in Williamstown within walking distance of the theater and you could find everyone from former Huntington and WTF artistic director Nicholas Martin and his entourage to festival stars like David Schwimmer chowing down before and after the play. But even if there aren't as many celebrity sightings, at least before the theater, there's still the same mouth-watering locally-sourced food and casually elegant layout right outside of town up on a hill on Route 7, where the French restaurant Le Jardin used to be. And it's still a quick drive from the theater.
Don't even think about going anywhere else after eating at the Dream Away Lodge down south in Becket. Though it seems like the middle of nowhere, once you're there you won't want to be anywhere else.
It's an evening's entertainment in itself. Parts of Bob Dylan's 1978 epic (oy) "Renaldo and Clara" with Joan Baez and Allen Ginsberg were shot there, and it maintains a hipster-folkie-beatnik atmo with signs like "HIPPIES USE SIDE DOOR," pointers to the Loo Gallery, drinks like Hilltown Hooker (Tito’s vodka, locally made organic ginger syrup, fresh lemon, angostura bitters), camp fires, mazes, walks and folk music.
Oh, and food. These folks know how to cook, everything from local grass-fed burgers to crispy skin salmon. The best way to end a Berkshires stay? Dream Away.
If I never made it past Exit 3 growing up in Boston I've tried to make up for it since that first visit 35 years ago. When I started writing for the late, lamented Berkshire Living magazine I said that something special happened in the half-hour between Northampton and Exit 2 in Lee, a sense that even without visiting the Buddhist-inspired Kripalu Center, a great calming settles in. Hearing Beethoven's "Eroica," seeing Shakespeare & Company's friends of the Bard, chatting at The Bookstore, chowing down at the Dream Away. Even in our crazy times, there's somewhere that's right in the world.