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From Lawn To Screen: Boston Symphony Takes Tanglewood Summer Music Festival Online

View of the Koussevitzky Music Shed at Tanglewood. (Courtesy the Boston Symphony Orchestra)
View of the Koussevitzky Music Shed at Tanglewood. (Courtesy the Boston Symphony Orchestra)

The Boston Symphony Orchestra's sublime sounds will not waft over the rolling green grass at Tanglewood this summer because of the enduring coronavirus crisis. But in a bid to stay connected with audiences — while hoping to generate much-needed revenue — the BSO is taking its acclaimed, months-long music festival into the digital realm. The organization released details on Monday.

Violinist Joshua Bell. (Courtesy Boston Symphony Orchestra)
Violinist Joshua Bell. (Courtesy Boston Symphony Orchestra)

BSO musicians — along with a wide range of stellar guest artists including cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Emanuel Ax and violinist Joshua Bell — are helping to produce original, pre-recorded performances for the new Tanglewood 2020 Online Festival. Pianist Paul Lewis will capture his playing at Wigmore Hall in London and the Danish String Quartet will do the same in Copenhagen.

Encore and archival performances are also part of the lineup, in addition to informal conversations with artists and master classes. The first of those is with BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons on July 1.

Since cancelling its season in March, the BSO and a long list of arts organizations across the globe have been scrambling to crank out free digital content. According to president and CEO Mark Volpe, more than eight million people have engaged virtually with the organization's output over the past two months.

“The reality is we're reaching more people than we've ever reached before,” he said.

But Volpe pointed to the biggest challenge faced by cultural institutions that have been transferring their work from the stage to the computer screen. As a business model it doesn't work, Volpe said, because there is no revenue.

Over the course of a normal year, the BSO generates more than $50 million dollars in ticket sales and other earned income, including rentals. Right now that number is zero. That's why the orchestra is taking a shot at establishing a flexible paywall for the online Tanglewood festival.

Access to individual events can be purchased for between $5 and $12. Many others are free. Taking in the entire Tanglewood summer costs $100.

According to Volpe, roughly $30 million dollars in ticket sales evaporated with the cancellation of all in-person programming since March. He admitted the amount of income paid online access could potentially generate is a mystery.

“When we build a Tanglewood season after 80 years of doing that, we can kind of guess within one or two or three percent what the income is going to be,” Volpe explained. “I've told the trustees of the Boston Symphony, for this digital stuff, we have no idea. We've never done it before.”

Volpe said sponsors who've been impressed with the BSO's online efforts so far are still contributing their support, which could have disappeared along with the ticket sales.

Tony Fogg, artistic administrator for the BSO and director of Tanglewood, described the new online offerings as “bespoke” and said the objective is to maintain as much of the scheduled festival as possible.

“Many of the artists featured are those who were to have played at Tanglewood this summer,” he explained in a statement. “We’re also releasing certain performances at the same times as they would have been heard live, with complete online recordings of BSO concerts taking place Sunday afternoons at 2:30 p.m.” Fogg hopes the variety of offerings will, “inspire and sustain our loyal audiences during this period of hiatus from live performances and until we are all together again in summer 2021.”

Volpe acknowledged it would be impossible to replicate the experience hundreds of thousands of audience members have each summer while communing with family, friends, music and nature at Tanglewood. But he said the goal with the virtual pivot is to capture at least some of that spirit. He hopes fans will gather together — perhaps even outside, and of course at a safe distance — to enjoy what the BSO has come up with as an alternative.

As for the BSO's season in the fall, Volpe isn't sure audiences will be able to convene again at the still-dark Symphony Hall. That's up to public health and government officials, he said adding, “they're going to make the decision for us."

Related:

Andrea Shea Twitter Senior Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.

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