Grandma led me to the Press Gate at Tanglewood where her dear friend Louie Esterman held court. Louie stopped us instead of waving us through – “I want you to meet Leonard Bernstein’s children: Jamie, Alex and Nina.” At ten years old, I wasn’t exactly sure who they were, but we nodded to each other. I could tell that Louie thought it was a special encounter.
My mother grew up in Pittsfield, next to Lenox, which is the location of Tanglewood in the beautiful Berkshires in western Massachusetts. As a child, my grandparents Anna and Nathan Bass began taking me to hear concerts at the summer home of the Boston Symphony because of my violin studies. I loved the beautiful environment and enjoyed the music. Because Louie was a volunteer at the press gate, we were able to picnic on the lawn and hear the concerts for free!
Walking onto the expansive grounds in later years filled me with awe at the knowledge that just about every famous American musician (and many foreigners) had passed through these gates, either as fellowship students at the Tanglewood Music Center (TMC) or on stage with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO). Friendships formed while Fellows (such as the one with Bruce Creditor, assistant personnel manager of the BSO, pictured above) have deepened over the years. Tanglewood became one of the most important places in my life — family memories, concert experiences as a teenager, participation as a Fellow for two summers, lifelong friendships, special concerts heard throughout the years, and most important, meeting my husband as students at the Tanglewood Music Center almost 40 years ago. It is a special place in my life that I return to as often as possible.
During my teenage years, I and many young arts students attended summer camps to further our studies. I was fortunate to attend the Indian Hill Summer Arts Workshop in Stockbridge, very close to Tanglewood. For three summers, we had options each week to attend Tanglewood, Jacob’s Pillow (dance), the Berkshire Playhouse (theater), and numerous museums throughout the area. I heard the Boston Symphony conducted by Bernstein, Leinsdorf, Previn, Steinberg, and many others.
Founded in 1937 by conductor Serge Koussevitzky, Tanglewood is the summer home of the Boston Symphony during July and August each year. In 1940, the Berkshire (now Tanglewood) Music Center was founded as a fellowship program for outstanding instrumentalists, singers, conductors and composers. To this day it remains the most prestigious American training program, with full scholarships for all participants.
As a graduate student, I set myself the goal of attending the Tanglewood fellowship program. Music is a highly competitive field — I hoped that if I was able to participate as a Fellow, I might be successful as a professional musician. It took three auditions to gain admission to the program so you can imagine how happy I was to walk through the main gate as a member of the Tanglewood Music Center!
In my two summers as a Fellow, I was able to perform under the baton of some of the most famous conductors of our time including BSO Music Director Seiji Ozawa, Leonard Bernstein, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Klaus Tennstedt, and Neville Marriner. We were also led by TMC director Gunther Schuller, BSO concertmaster Joseph Silverstein, and other faculty, plus the TMC conducting fellows. Chamber music each week was coached by notable musicians from the BSO, including Eugene Lehner (former member of the Kolisch Quartet), principal winds and strings, plus musicians such as violinist Louis Krasner who world premiered concertos written for him by Schoenberg and Berg. Within the festival each summer, the fellows also performed a weeklong Contemporary Music Festival.
Our first concert that summer was conducted by Seiji Ozawa. Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique is a unique composition by a revolutionary composer. I have always loved the work, and performing it under one of its best interpreters was like being in a wonderful dream. Ozawa worked so quickly — the next bar number was announced and we had to be ready immediately! I was in awe of my colleagues’ ability, but saw quickly that the high quality of both conductor and players made it easier to play. I was thrilled to be there.
My first summer in 1978 also featured an unexpected orchestral experience. Every Monday, assignments for the upcoming week were posted at the Main House. You can imagine everyone’s surprise that an orchestra concert had been added with a surprise conductor — Leonard Bernstein! Maestro Bernstein had decided to perform his first public concert after the death of his beloved wife Felicia at Tanglewood, where he had been a student in the early 1940s.
We were thrilled but very intimidated as the rehearsals began the following day with only one day to prepare a very difficult concert: Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, Debussy’s La Mer, and Schumann’s Symphony No. 2. This was added to an already busy schedule of activities, resulting in 13 orchestra services (rehearsals and concert) in one week!
The fellowship orchestra at Tanglewood was extremely nervous because we had no time to prepare for our first rehearsal with the famous maestro. The opening of Debussy’s La Mer has a notorious cello section solo, one of great difficulty. The celli, while trying their best, sounded unprepared since they had only received the music the prior day. The maestro, with his half glasses perched on his nose, tried the passage twice, and simply stated, “It will be fine tomorrow,” and it was.
This was my first experience in front of a great leader. If Bernstein had kept at the celli to make it fine the first day, he would have lost his troops and created ill will for the entire orchestra of eighty members. He was aware that his decision to conduct a special concert had stressed the orchestra members and that they merely needed another day to practice in order to do their best. My definition of a great concert is that you wish it would never end. This one could have gone on forever.
What could possibly top this incredible experience? I was thrilled to be invited back for a second year in 1979 as a Fellow. That summer, Mr. Bernstein was part of the schedule to conduct the extraordinarily difficult Symphony No. 5 by Prokofiev on a program that also included two conducting Fellows. I approached the summer thinking that I knew what to expect. I didn’t figure in a special summer romance that resulted in finding my life partner, Jeff von der Schmidt.
A horn player from Los Angeles, Jeff had studied the previous year in Vienna, Austria, with the principal horn of the Vienna Philharmonic, Roland Berger. Jeff had been assigned principal horn for the Prokofiev symphony. At the first rehearsal, he presented a letter from his teacher to Maestro Bernstein, who conducted often in Vienna. Bernstein told him that his teacher was one of the finest horn players in the world, and Jeff should do exactly as he was taught.
This was a concert that I never wanted to end, a dream combination of one of the world’s great conductors with Jeff playing prominent solos. Concerts like this are never forgotten.
The remainder of the summer was filled with memorable performances including the Bartok’s String Quartet No. 2, Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 conducted by Seiji Ozawa, and many other fine concerts with incredible colleagues. These two summers remain present and special in my memory.
My most recent trip this summer reinforced my love of what Tanglewood represents — the highest standards of performance, the passing of traditions from old to young, the benefits of immersion as a learning tool, and the joy of music shared between performers and audiences. We visited with old friends, heard compositions by dear colleagues, mourned losses in the music community, and observed the young musicians at the beginning of their careers. The legacy of Tanglewood is shared by so many and we carry it with us throughout our lives.
For more information, see the Tanglewood Music Center.