From the Shed to the Stars: Reflections on the Boston University Tanglewood Institute

Boston University is currently reviewing their financial stake in the program and its future—both as part of the larger university and as directly connected to Tanglewood itself. But cutting BUTI or relocating it from its current campus would be a sad erasure of a rich legacy that stretches back forty-five years and encompasses the early careers of many prominent musicians.

Written By

Will Robin

I acquired my first orchestral scores in the Tanglewood gift shop, at the age of seventeen. A student at the Boston University Tanglewood Institute, I purchased the last copy of the Brahms symphonies the day before the Boston Symphony Orchestra launched a Brahms cycle under James Levine at Tanglewood’s legendary Koussevitsky Shed. A geek-cellist friend, alarmed at the prospect of listening without a score, offered me $200 for it; I declined. This was a new experience, a worth attached to music that I had not encountered before.

Many a college essay, I’m sure, has included a variation on a similar anecdote: “Gazing up at the stars while listening to [insert canonic symphony here], I realized that music was my true calling.”

Mine certainly did. NewMusicBox readers can probably recall similarly seminal, early memories of summer music festivals in high school or college, experiences of communing with nature and other young musicians that helped drive them to be the composers or performers they are today. But beyond the pat clichés of staring at the stars while listening to Brahms—for me at least—there was something more powerful at work: an expansion of musical consciousness and igniting of an intellectual curiosity that made me want to study music for the rest of my life.

I attended BUTI—affectionately known as “booty”—in the summers of 2005 and 2006; I played saxophone in the wind ensemble, a four-week program that ran alongside similar programs for high school-age composers, vocalists, pianists, and orchestral musicians. Those eight weeks are powerfully etched into my memory.

Sam Almaguer (clarinet), Molly Yeh (percussion), Nathan von Trotha (percussion), and Chris Pell (clarinet) before their last orchestra concert in the summer of 2007.

Sam Almaguer (clarinet), Molly Yeh (percussion), Nathan von Trotha (percussion), and Chris Pell (clarinet) before their last orchestra concert in the summer of 2007.
Photo courtesy Molly Yeh

Today, that program is in a certain amount of danger, and thus this article; I write less from a “Save Our Classical Music Institution” perspective but rather out of an obligation that is both personal and historic. The stories of young musicians at BUTI are stories that are crucial to the narrative of music in the past half-century. Cutting BUTI or relocating it from its current campus would be a sad erasure of a rich legacy that stretches back forty-five years and encompasses the early careers of many prominent musicians.

Earlier this month, the Berkshire Eagle reported a few of the issues at hand with the future of the BUTI program, which is run by Boston University (unlike the Tanglewood Music Center fellows program, which is facilitated by Tanglewood and the Boston Symphony). BU is currently reviewing their financial stake in the program and its future—both as part of the larger university and as directly connected to Tanglewood itself.

Sam Solomon—a percussionist who participated in BUTI in high school and today teaches at BU and BUTI—has recently begun to speak out publicly about the issues in order to draw attention to the dangers of altering the program. I communicated with Phyllis Hoffman—a professor of voice at BU and the executive and artistic director of BUTI—who let me know that the BUTI and BU administration are working closely together to offset the budget problems; she wrote to me that “there is a strong recognition of the excellence and importance of BUTI.”

That said, the current facilities—located on the beautiful West Campus, within walking distance of Tanglewood’s main grounds—are in need of overhaul and can’t currently accommodate all of the programs that BUTI offers. Fortunately, the Eagle recently confirmed that BUTI will definitely continue next summer. But serious investment is required, and BU is reportedly considering moving the program from Lenox to Boston.

Nathan von Trotha practicing the cymbals outside at BUTI

Nathan von Trotha practicing the cymbals outside at BUTI
Photo courtesy Molly Yeh

That would be a huge mistake. In her study The Sounds of Place: Music and the American Cultural Landscape, Denise von Glahn writes of the particularly American relationship between music and place, the “unique way in which music of the cultivated tradition expresses, defines, and celebrates place.” Tanglewood has already been similarly inscribed into American musical history. Nico Muhly, a BUTI alum, has written It Remains To Be Seen, a lovely, loving orchestral work that pays tribute to his wistful nighttime walk from the Tanglewood main grounds back to West Campus following a concert. Osvaldo Golijov’s cello concerto Azul was inspired by the composer’s memories of hearing the Boston Symphony play outdoors when he was a Tanglewood fellow (though not in BUTI). The Tanglewood experience has become part of this grand American tradition of tonalizing space, a place-based muse.

I asked several prominent alums of BUTI to help paint a broader picture of what BUTI, the program and the place, meant for them, and how their early experiences as high school fellows made them the musicians they are today.
Nico Muhly, composer

It was just amazing…For me the West Street campus is just so romantic and lovely, and site specific, and being that close to the grounds is amazing, and walking to the grounds is amazing….There’s nowhere else like that.

It’s that sense of continuity. For instance, one of my other friends I met that first summer, Dan Bauch, went on to the Tanglewood Music Center and went on to be a timpanist in the BSO. You can hear the same music by someone who, when you were a sixteen-year-old, you sat on the lawn and listened to The Firebird with; [he’s now] playing it with that orchestra 15 years later—it’s such a magical thing.

One of the things that people talk about, even just on the BSO side of it, is that it’s not just great music-making—it’s the whole culture of being there and the whole intergenerational chilled-ness. It’s so important for young musicians to see that. It connects to people, but it also connects to the idea of musical community.

This last summer I volunteered for a week and did master classes and taught lessons. I did the same thing two years ago. I go up as much as I can.  If I can volunteer at BUTI, it literally makes my summer. For me it’s not a summer unless you go to Tanglewood, and I’ve done crazy shit, like a couple years ago I flew back from, like, Singapore or something just to go. It’s not just fun, I think it’s vital

Molly Yeh, percussionist and food blogger

An earth shattering Mahler 5, a terrifying but triumphant Copland 3…While my love for music led me to BUTI, it was my time at BUTI that made me love the music world and desperately want to be a part of it. It was there where I met many of my very best friends, where I learned how to change a timpani head and work with composers on new works, and where I got to know Tanglewood as one of my most favorite places on earth. My BUTI summers were the first flaps of the butterfly’s wings in my career as a percussionist.

My bonds with my peers at BUTI, both professional and personal, still hold tight today, however it is also important to mention that my interactions with the Tanglewood Music Center percussionists also had a profoundly enriching effect. To this day, I consider a few of them to be my most valuable mentors. With their encouragement and support, I had extra confidence in my college auditions, and I’ve since had the opportunity to play with them in orchestras around the world. Having the TMC percussionists as role models during my years at BUTI was a unique and unforgettable experience that I would not have gotten at any other music camp.

Forgive me for being dramatic, but when I’m old and crusty and dying, the montage of my adult life will open with Mahler’s Adagietto playing to a memory where I’m dancing with my three best friends, barefoot on the Tanglewood grounds. Laughing, frolicking…and then taceting in tears until the next movement. Without a doubt, these were some of the happiest moments of my life.

Sam Solomon, percussionist and faculty member at BU and BUTI

I’ve been fortunate to be a part of BUTI for 13 years: three as a student, and now ten as a faculty member. In and of itself, it is a top-notch program with top-notch faculty, but what sets it apart from other great summer festivals is the location. The students are provided an unparalleled education on top of that offered by the Institute because of their access to Tanglewood concerts, rehearsals, and masterclasses, as well as the community of musicians that spend their summers there. All of the Boston Symphony, Tanglewood Music Center, and visiting artist concerts expose these young minds to dozens of conductors, composers, and performers.

For me it was revelatory. I was a BUTI student nearly 20 years ago, and every musical experience I have had since is filtered through the education I received there. I am still in close contact with many of the students that were with me those summers, all of whom are at the top of their fields, playing in, composing for, soloing with, or conducting major orchestras, touring with successful chamber ensembles, teaching at top-tier music schools, and even in high-level music administration positions.

Nadia Sirota, violist and daughter of Robert Sirota, who taught composition at BUTI (Nadia did not herself attend the program)

Hanging around BUTI and Tanglewood laid the single most-impactiful groundwork for my becoming a musician. Without a doubt. There was a true respect for music-making that pervaded the place, not music-making as industry but as art. There was a joy to the program. I remember all of my dad’s little composition students hanging out at our house and having barbecues. Composers, performers, and audience members are all thrown together in this little town. Everything feels vital. Also, musicians that are 16 years old get to consort with musicians who are 23 and musicians who are 63. The whole musical ecosystem is temporarily housed in one zone. It’s like a terrarium.

Judd Greenstein, composer and co-founder of New Amsterdam Records

Having friends who, like me, knew they were composers, that they had already discovered their passion and were pursuing it at a high level, was extremely encouraging and gave me a sense of being part of a supportive community even before we all wound up in New York together, years later. The other important experience was getting to interact with really great older composers. That’s where I first met David Lang, and Sofia Gubaidulina visited, which was incredible, even in translation. I remember her talking about silence. It was one of the most profoundly important musical education experiences of my life, as was David’s talk. Especially so because I was with Nico [Muhly] and we could talk all day about what they said, as teenagers, when you really are learning so much.

It’s really my relationship with Nico that has meant the most to me. When you have a good friend in a challenging creative field who you’ve known for a long time, whom you meet at such a young age, it gives you a lot of confidence. Like, whatever else people may say, I know that we get each other and what we’re trying to do. I recently found some letters that we sent to each other where I was basically complaining about all the things that I wound up trying to address in the world of music, later on, with NOW Ensemble and New Amsterdam and Ecstatic, and which I’m still trying to address. Having friends with whom you can share those thoughts, and who agree, and where you’re supporting each other, is invaluable. Now I have many of those friends, of course, but Nico was the first, and BUTI is the avenue that made it happen.

Logan K. Young, editor-in-chief, Classicalite

Growing up in a small Southern town, attending the Boston University Tanglewood Institute was my first real, extended exposure to a world-class symphony orchestra, with every attendant benefit therein. I was 18 years old, freshly graduated from high school with an even fresher beard. Sure, I had been to Spoleto. I had studied trumpet at the Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, as well as the Brevard Music Center, and I had just finished a week at the Conductors Institute of South Carolina. But BUTI truly was a different experience in an altogether different land. (I never will forget the 24-hour-plus Greyhound ride from Georgetown, South Carolina, to Lenox, Massachusetts!) I had no formal training in composition beforehand, but as soon as I got off that bus, I was thrust into hard lessons with Richard Cornell and Julian Wachner, intense classes with Steve Mackey and the late Lukas Foss. Of course, the Festival of Contemporary Music was its own great teacher, too. If I’d never heard Copland or Bernstein performed live by anything other than a per-service orchestra, I certainly had never heard any Leon Kirchner in person, much less a thing like Satie’s Socrate. And when I bought a double-CD of Tod Machover’s Valis at the gift shop on the grounds of Tanglewood proper, well, it’s no hyperbole to say that my life was changed forever. Come college, I would go on to summer at places like Banglewood and, stranger still, the Stockhausen Courses in Kürten, but none of those would have been possible were it not for the invaluable training in the most solid fundamentals which I received at BUTI. Granted, I write more about new music now, but again, if BUTI didn’t exist back then, my life would sound a lot more dull. I’m a better musician, writer, and overall person for having taken that Greyhound to Lenox; I sincerely hope the brass don’t shut the place down.

Jeffrey Beecher, principal bass, Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and member of The Silk Road Ensemble

I attended the Boston University Tanglewood Institute as a 14-year-old in 1997.   While I had some experience at other music programs under my belt, I remember feeling a little scared when I arrived in Lenox, not knowing what I was in store for.  From the moment I arrived at BUTI, I knew I had found a very special place.  I was immediately struck by the impressive level of talent and dedication coming from the other students.
I was inspired to meet young musicians who not only excelled at their instruments, but passionately debated the best recordings of Mahler symphonies, were floored to rehearse and perform the great orchestral masterworks (Nielsen 4!!), and who eagerly attended the Boston Symphony’s Shed concerts like rock shows.

All of this was greatly influenced by the location on the Boston University campus.   To be that close to the Tanglewood grounds afforded me unparalleled access to the pros.  It also inspired the dream of a long journey: with hard work, I might one day be a fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center.   And with even more hard work, I might get the chance to play in a professional orchestra?!

I am extremely grateful to say that I am living that 14-year-old’s dream—I perform as professional musician in a phenomenal orchestra and a world music ensemble.  As a teacher, I get to pass on the traditions and generosity of spirit I learned at BUTI to today’s aspiring young musicians.

In August 2010, my relationship to BUTI came full circle when I performed with the Silk Road Ensemble and Yo-Yo Ma at the Tanglewood Shed.  Feeling nostalgic, I gave a quick shout-out to the BUTI students in attendance.  As a youthful cheer exploded from beyond stage left, I was thrilled to observe that the vitality and passion of those students was just as impressive as it had been to me thirteen years earlier.

Missy Mazzoli, composer

It was vital to me to see as much music as possible.  I saw two or three concerts a day, plus rehearsals.  I remember seeing Peter Serkin in a rehearsal with the BSO, Anonymous Four, Van Cliburn, and John Williams conducting the premiere of a new orchestral work, among many others.  I was only seventeen but managed to meet Mauricio Kagel, Elliott Carter, Joan Tower, Bright Sheng, John Harbison, and Aaron Kernis that summer as well.  These were among the first living composers I met, believe it or not.

The location near the Tanglewood campus is absolutely essential to the power of the program.  Many of the best experiences I mentioned had to do with the fact that for the first time in my life I felt that I was being treated as a professional.  The ability to walk on the same grounds as the BSO and the chance to meet the top contemporary composers made me feel that I was on my way to having a life as a musician.  For a girl from small-town Pennsylvania, this was absolutely essential to my feeling that I could go on as a composer.

Timothy Andres, composer

I didn’t know a lot of kids my age who were interested in the same things I was. That first summer at BUTI was the first time I could meet other 14-year-olds who were obsessed with Ravel; no longer a social disease, my obsession made me popular. It wasn’t an education so much as a combination of osmosis and moral support. It confirmed my desperate need to be part of this thing—to be a musician was a real possibility, and if not exactly attainable, at least conceivable. And it was the beginning of my attachment to a place that would continue through college (when I returned for the Tanglewood Music Center) and my professional career (we recorded Home Stretch in Ozawa Hall).
It’s an integral part of Tanglewood and the larger music world, and its survival is vitally important to young musicians.

Craig Hubbard (French horn) and Yeh, frolicking on the Tanglewood grounds in 2007.

Craig Hubbard (French horn) and Molly Yeh, frolicking on the Tanglewood grounds in 2007.
Photo courtesy Molly Yeh

I myself have many memories of great performances, but perhaps more importantly, many memories of the value that my peers placed on those performances; thus, the $200 offered for that Brahms score! That value was in part a kind of cultural cold war that I engaged in with my fellow high schoolers, a battle over knowledge of the canon. I was a classical saxophonist with a very light schooling in the orchestral rep, and phrases like “Bruckner Four” and “the Meistersinger Prelude,” tossed off with such ease by other musicians (well, let’s be honest, brass players) endowed me with a peculiar kind of inferiority complex.
I tried to catch up, learning as much as I could as fast as I could. Following my first BUTI summer in 2005, I spent my senior year of high school fastidiously reading Wikipedia pages and biographies of the great composers. I returned in 2006 with the lingo, knowledge, and constant quest for new information about music that undergirds my research today. At age seventeen, it felt very good to know who Brahms was and why it was so special to hear Levine lead a full cycle of his symphonies. (New music, I should say, remained a bafflingly unknown element; I wish I had taken advantage of the offerings at the contemporary festival. And to this day, I regret most of all opting out of hearing the famous performance of Histoire du Soldat narrated by Babbitt, Carter, and Harbison.)

I could list the many concerts that inspired and overwhelmed me. But it was the overall sense of the environment and the coming-together of several generations of musicians—from high schoolers to college-age Tanglewood Music Center players to tenured members of the Boston Symphony—in a single place that was unique. With immense pride, I watched close friends rise through the ranks each summer, ascending the professional ladder amid the pines. A percussionist, Kyle Brightwell, was an early star in my first BUTI summer. By the next summer, he was already subbing with the TMC orchestra. This past August, I visited Tanglewood and saw Kyle pound away at the big drum in The Rite of Spring, as a tenured member of the Boston Symphony’s percussion section.

That sense of lineage, and the opportunity to forge an early relationship with musicians that will be maintained over the course of a lifetime, cannot be underestimated. Sitting outside the Shed and listening to Brahms, I can gaze up at those same stars today—as can Muhly, Andres, Mazzoli, Beecher, Young, Sirota, Yeh, and Solomon—and imagine a musical past and a continuity extending into a bright future.