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Tanglewood, My Family's Transcendental Homeland

Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood.
Steve Rosenthal
courtesy of the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood.

The barn reeked of mildew, wet wood in 90 degrees, an odious perfume with which I was familiar from a childhood in a Long Island canal town peppered with planked houses. I opened my instrument's case to see the hygrometer's needle stuck on the highest humidity level: assurance that my first professional-grade violin would not crack, or, to the great aural pleasure of Katja, my radiant Austrian stand partner with superb pitch, remain in tune.

It was raining, and our orchestra was warming up to play with a celebrated conductor in Massachusetts' Berkshire mountains, steps from the home of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who if he were alive would have almost certainly been frightened by the modern sonorities of our music, perhaps the way my octogenarian neighbor twitches upon hearing a beat of electronic dance music.

I felt a transcendental whoosh of history and emotional connection with my surroundings, and as I drew purposefully scratchy sounds from my instrument—I liked to test Katja's patience as much as she teased me in public, calling me only "stahnd-pahtnahhh"—I kept my eyes locked on our guest maestro, a man of my parents' generation who had likely shared colleagues with them.

I was at Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony Orchestra's summer home, and I had been here before—almost every summer of my childhood. To our perpetual horror and terribly rational opposition, my younger brother and I, both early childhood pianists, were begrudgingly carted to this great, leafy epicenter of summer orchestra and chamber music concerts, sometimes more than twice a season. "Tanglewood" was a depressing word to us. It meant weekends on a knotty blanket with the delicious opportunity to eat stinky cheese while sitting on the ground as my parents listened to live performances of what I was certain, at age six, Tears for Fears did not consider "music": the conductor Leonard Bernstein, or what seemed like a wacky modern dancer in a suit playing a giant upside-down violin called "Yo-Yo."

But by 1994, at age 17, I found myself at Tanglewood by choice. I had been picked to participate in the festival's summer program for high school students run by Boston University. It wasn't the Tanglewood Music Center, the program meant for older, developing professionals that had offered fellowships in 1971 to my courting, pre-marital parents, both award-winning pianists at The Juilliard School.

But it was close enough, I thought, as the conductor raised his baton and Katja and I synced in syncopation (a sign of harmony off the stage?). I was still learning (by which I mean failing at) the art of teenage seduction, but I knew my place here. The spot must have seemed as foreign to my dirty-blonde partner from Graz as it felt for the scraggly Southern guy some called the "Kentucky Fried Cellist." But we could have been in my parents' den, so sensitive to the rhythms of this rustic, woodsy musical node was my daily life, family.

Tanglewood is a music festival, but at its heart, it's about story. Named for Hawthorne and his charitable revision of Greek myths for children, Tanglewood was not only the music retreat where, in the 1940s and beyond, a young Bernstein, soon to lead the New York Philharmonic and write West Side Story, came of age, learning from heralded musicians like conductor Serge Koussevitsky and composer Aaron Copland. Now celebrating its 75th anniversary, Tanglewood also served as the singular hotspot where my parents fell in love and my family was forged. One year after their pivotal Tanglewood summer, during which my parents reportedly slept in "separate quarters" down the road from the Hawthorne house, they were married.

They would go on to have children, move from Manhattan to Queens, and eventually, bayside suburgatory, but Tanglewood became our family's homeland even if I despised our trips there. Whether I was expressing annoyance at another creatively named "vacation" or live broadcasts from Tanglewood's open-air music shed regularly blasting on the house stereo, our hearts and minds were literally entangled in the place. Tanglewood was tension and love, flight and rootedness. Growing up, my brother and I didn't know what, if any, purpose it would serve us as adults. But before we could articulate the concept we knew that Tanglewood was as much a part of us as we were a part of it.

In 1940, Bernstein wrote to Serge Koussevitsky of his Tanglewood experience: "This summer to me was beauty—beauty in work, and strength of purpose, and cooperation. I am full of humility and gratitude for having shared so richly in it." My phone calls from our dorm were hardly as poetic but they didn't communicate a different message. What I left out, especially from dialogues with my parents, was that spending a summer at Tanglewood was downloading into my mind a fuller picture of who they were as individuals and a couple. My summer at Tanglewood introduced me to my parents as young, hopeful and happily childless people at 21: maturing kids with whom I could identify. I was fully fusing the place and my family, sans the interference that comes with resisting everything as a contrarian teenager.

I made a pretty wise personal branding decision as a young adult male who played contact sports when I chose the rugged violin as my primary instrument. Strangely, I wasn't proud to perform solo showpieces at graduation ceremonies, or to announce to my soccer team that an All County orchestra rehearsal would keep me from attending practice. (Using such an excuse was like speaking a feminine version of Martian to my coach, a neighborhood firefighter.)

I came around when I started to piece together that my parents and Tanglewood both weren't stuffy. Their shockingly rebellious stories of students "possibly" breaking into a pastry truck in the middle of the night or those who experimented in ways that others did at, say, Woodstock, rendered the concert-music life more human. So at 16, I tried a few weeks at a small festival modeled on Tanglewood near my home, met a few cool musician friends of my own. Later that year, I applied to the big leagues.

Luckily, Tanglewood already lived in my house. A remote stage existed in my living room below the 1938 Steinway grand on which my mother and father would accompany me in private performances of Brahms, Vivaldi, or Gershwin preludes arranged by Jascha Heifetz. It was Cesar Franck's emotionally explosive violin sonata—an expression of devotion and angst between parent and child, preserved on audiotape via boombox—that functioned as my passport as well as entree to a racy life in music schools based in Manhattan, Aspen and Baltimore. My relationship with my parents and music-making fused in a perversely elegant way. It's still something that transcends language, and I like it that way. It's our glue, always there when conversation fails.

Due in no small part to my senior musical collaborators, I won a scholarship to the Tanglewood high-school program, enjoying a transformative summer there. It was on those lawns where I met some of my best friends and simultaneously recorded my most intense performance memories. In 1994, our orchestra was one of the first to play in the new Seiji Ozawa Hall, an architectural marvel, the back of which opened up to a descending hill. Tanglewood inspired me and three radical friends, as adept at playing Jane's Addiction on electric guitars as they were at playing Beethoven, to band together and give the festival's true, if extraordinarily indie and popular-among-our-peers, debut of a hard-rocking string quartet: Gorecki's Quasi una fantasia, a piece immortalized by our alternative chamber-music idols, the Kronos Quartet.

Tanglewood offered me my first summer away from home after living in a town where the (less-)privileged had already spent seven or so years in overpriced sleep-away camps. I missed that express route to sex and partying (if my peers' tales were true). But I grew up in a more natural tempo on Tanglewood's grounds. I comically fell for Katja, even winning a few kisses, most likely out of the fair lady's sympathy for an admiring guy who rarely hit all the notes. I explored the relationship between vodka and Shostakovich (better together). I performed my first Mahler symphony (the First, called the "Titan"), which I would listen to as a daily anthem in later years as I fought illness. At Tanglewood, the kids were mature, not fast. We spent late nights arguing about the links between Bach and the Beatles. The rosters of the great orchestras became a substitute for the rosters of our favorite sports teams, even if we got drunk watching the World Cup in a bar. We traded CDs of Stravinsky the way peers back home traded drugs and gambling debts. We were still kids: We just infused our childhoods with different stuff, and today, many of my fellow alumni are members of great orchestras, notable composers and actors (so much for the writer).

At the end of my Tanglewood summer, when my parents drove up to collect me, the first thing I said was that I had come to understand what those endless-seeming weekends on the grass were about. Hearing Bernstein conduct Beethoven in nature does something wondrous for a kid; I was now proud to have had that experience as a child. When I returned to high school for one last year I felt like a graduate. Not superior—just newly comfortable with not quite fitting in, which was genuine preparation for the social isolation of cancer, recovery, and life in the arts. Six months after my return, I fell ill with lymphoma, but it was my Tanglewood friends who were there for me when most of my old friends at school had better things to do.

I went on to a traditional college and music conservatory, to playing concerts in Manhattan and sneaking into Lincoln Center concerts with my Tanglewood posse (hardcore). But I also felt more deeply bonded to my parents. I finally celebrated what made them so different from the other parents in my town, the ones who made more money and generously took me along on expensive jet ski excursions. My parents weren't freaks or elitists, espousing highbrow culture or judging those who licked their lips for the low or more visceral pleasures. They just wanted to give my brother and I multimedia memories of profound meaning, to connect music with a familial bond. Later, I started to write about music for publication. But I knew that nothing could take the place of playing with others: forging relationships through practice and performance.

Today I live in California and play more rock guitar than violin concertos. I can't visit Tanglewood for this summer's celebratory season. But that's OK. Tanglewood is a part of me. And that's something about myself that I hope will never change—as long as those who love the festival continue to honor Hawthorne's passion for myth and narrative, the musical raconteurs who brought and continue to bring the festival to life. The people who tell its stories.

Adam Baer, a former NPR producer, is a writer in Los Angeles. He has also written essays for The New York Times, Harper's, and many other publications and anthologies. You can follow him on Twitter @glassshallot.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Adam Baer