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Music and Dance in the Berkshires

Out of the gray, into the green

By Bence Olveczky

A mere two-hour drive from the grayness of MIT campus lie the lush and green Berkshire Hills. For more than sixty years, this scenic countryside has been the summer hideout for east coast artists, who have turned it into an impressive cultural summer camp for art lovers of all ages. City dwellers, tired of their overcrowded neighborhoods and hungry for sophisticated entertainment, are making their pilgrimage in masses, and it's easy to see why. In the Berkshires, the perfect marriage between art and nature is more than an abstract idea - it's a blooming and tangible reality.

Classical Music: The Tanglewood experience

Take Tanglewood, for example. At first sight, this large ground with its palatial gardens, impressive buildings, and overpriced shops seems like a cross between a country club and a spa. Here, comely couples roam around beautifully manicured lawns, aiding their conversations with glasses of wine and champagne. Makeshift tables with delicate smorgasbords are scattered across the lawn for added culinary appeal.

But being a place of recreation and indulgence is Tanglewood's second calling. First and foremost, it serves as a center for advanced musical education, allowing talented young musicians to study under the tutelage of Boston Symphony Orchestra members and other distinguished guests. Thankfully, the faculty share their magic with a wider audience as part of the Tanglewood Festival in a summer series of concerts and recitals.

I arrive to this Mecca of classical music just as the sun is setting and the mercury is falling. I soon lose my bearings in the web of Tanglewood alleys, but it's a blessing. Away from the crowds, I'm enthralled by the lovely tunes coming from the small rehearsal studios hidden amongst the park's trees and bushes. I join the crowd that slowly converges on the Koussevitzky Music Shed, named after the BSO musical director who first led the orchestra in a concert at Tanglewood in 1936.

I settle into my seat underneath the shed's famous canopy, designed in partnership with Eero Saarinen, the architect of both the Kresge Auditorium and the MIT chapel. As a result of the Finnish architect's genius, the acoustics are world-famous; in fact, the sound from the stage reaches well beyond the canopy to benefit patrons with lawn tickets who have gathered outside on garden chairs to enjoy the concert under the cover of emerging stars.

Anticipation grows as the maestro himself, Seiji Ozawa, takes the podium. He has devoted the first half of tonight's program to Stravinsky's exploration of Baroque music. The enigmatic Russian composer, famed for having invigorated 20th century music with polytonal dissonance and violent rhythms, returned to more classical forms later in life. As I listen to his adaptation of Bach's religious "Chorale Variations," followed by the jovial and sparkling Pergolesi-inspired suite from "Pulcinella," I can't help but marvel at the breadth and richness of Stravinsky's neo-classical oeuvre.

The experience is further enriched by Ozawa and the BSO, who make Stravinsky's baroque arrangements sound crisp, clear, and balanced. But the true highlight of the evening is Mozart's unfinished "Mass in C Minor." In giving this complex and sonorously brilliant piece a worthy rendering, Ozawa and the BSO are much helped by the outstanding Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the exceptional soloists Susanne Mentzner, Richard Clement, and John Relyea. But it is Korean superstar Hei-Kyung Hong's achingly beautiful soprano that gives the concert its edge. Her ethereal voice and the serene surroundings are a potent mixture indeed, and together they transport me to heaven and back many times during this unforgettable evening. Leaving Tanglewood in a religious bliss, I vow to come back soon, very soon.

Modern Dance: The Jacob's Pillow

It is not only the BSO that lures art lovers into the green. Twenty minutes east of Tanglewood, in the Becket region of the Berkshires, lies Jacob's Pillow, home to one of the world's most exciting modern dance festivals.

Arriving at the Pillow, I find myself on the top of a mountain boasting beautiful vistas of the neighboring forests. Had the nature-loving ancient Greeks made it to the Berkshires, this is where they would have built their amphitheater.

Jacob's Pillow, the picturesque and homely village that crowns the crest, exudes an intense air of contemporary dance. An educational institution complete with its own library, museum, and rehearsal studios, the Pillow is the modern ballet equivalent of Tanglewood, and its aim to educate and entertain is both worthy and viable.

As I'm finding my way around the campus with its barn-like structures, I become immersed in the history of the Pillow, which in many ways mirrors the history of American dance. Founded by Ted Shawn (one of the greatest American dancers) in 1933, the Pillow has grown from hosting Tea Lecture Demonstrations to becoming a forum and showcase for exciting new artists.

The festival remained both vanguard and relevant by mixing young talent with world-renowned stars, many of whom had their big break here at the Pillow. Out of loyalty and love, these established dancers return year after year to teach and perform at their alma mater. This summer's festival line-up is certainly no exception: Pillow veterans Paul Taylor, Trisha Brown, and Mark Morris will all visit the little mountain-top village before the festival ends in late August.

Having had his first independent piece commissioned by the festival back in 1984, David Parsons is another Pillow regular, and after having seen his spellbinding show at this year's Aerial Dance Festival in Boston, I timed my Pillow visit to coincide with his group's performance. I came for more of Parsons' magic, and once the lights went out in the remodeled barn that is the Ted Shawn Theatre, that's exactly what I got.

In "Fill the Woods with Light," composed by jazz legend Phil Woods, nine dancers play around with spotlights, sparsely illuminating each other. This graceful light-dance gives me the dazzling illusion of being in the moonlit woods, a funny and surreal experience. In "Caught," Parsons' signature piece from 1982, I relive my favorite moment from the Aerial Dance Festival: a dancer, his leaps timed to a strobe light, appears to be flying across the stage, performing exhilarating dance movements.

David Parsons, looking more like a college quarterback than a dance phenomenon, is, no doubt, one of the most outstanding choreographers in modern ballet. Like no other, he combines inventive lighting designs, expressive scores, and virtuoso dancing into a mesmerizing blend that is at once intuitively pleasing, easily appreciated, and highly theatrical.

He is also a very nice and generous guy, showcasing young troupe member Robert Battle as part of his Pillow show. But I'm struck by how similar Battle's three pieces are to Parson's. The budding choreographer, while obviously talented, has a long way to go before he can emerge from his mentor's shadow as an independent and original force.

The matinee ends on a joyful note with "Nascimento," named after its Brazilian composer. In this sunny and exuberant piece the eight dancers, seemingly liberated from the strict and precise choreography of the preceding pieces, respond to the gay Latino rhythms with blithe and blissful movements, making this inspired finale a glorious celebration of life and dance.

Once the magic is over, I head down the hillside into the surrounding forest. I stop at a clearing filled with fellow Pillow patrons, whose common focus is a white platform at the end of the slope. I see the silhouettes of young dancers performing Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" in front of a breathtaking panorama of the Berkshires. It's an overwhelming sight even for a hardy city dweller like me, and as I watch the coming generation of Pillow performers literally dance the sun away, I conclude that modern ballet is in pretty good shape. But don't trust me on that. Rather, I encourage you to take the trip to Jacob's Pillow and make the diagnosis yourself.

For information about upcoming events at Tanglewood, check out the BSO web site at . For performances at Jacob's Pillow, go to Both Festivals run until the end of August.