Classical Music Commentary: The Boston University Tanglewood Institute — A Marvelous Experience For All

Precision and obvious competence were only part of the story. What made this concert from The Young Artists Orchestra so special was the joy conveyed by these fledgling musicians, who, it is clear, take nothing for granted.

A student at the

An enthusiastic student during a Young Artists Orchestra rehearsal. Photo: Rachel Rodgers.

By Roberta Silman

There is a wonderful buzz at Tanglewood this summer, and with each passing day it seems as if this magnificent old institution has gotten a new lease on life. The weather has been terrific, the gardens sparkle, and the concerts sing with the joy of high quality music-making that has been a hallmark of Tanglewood at its best. Much of this excitement may be due to the brilliant hire by Mark Volpe, the Managing Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and his Board of Latvian-born conductor, Andris Nelsons, as the new Music Director. At 35, Nelsons has not only great talent, but also great charm, and is clearly delighted to be at what he kept referring to as “this amazing place.” At a recent interview, he was asked to name his five favorite composers — a question that makes about as much sense as which child is your favorite. But he was up to the challenge. He thought about it for a moment, then leaned forward, much as he does when conducting, and confided, “My favorite composer is the one I am conducting today.” And then he went on to talk about the unique relationship of the members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra to the Tanglewood Fellows, the young professionals at the Tanglewood Music Center who have come for a summer of study and performance under the guidance of Music Center Director Ellen Highstein, and members of the BSO.

Most of us who have been coming to Tanglewood for years know about this remarkable symbiosis, and we make it our business to take in the TMC concerts when we can. What many of us do not know is that in 1966 Erich Leinsdorf conceived of yet another way to involve young people in Tanglewood and an alliance between the College of Fine Arts at Boston University and Tanglewood was forged. It became BUTI, or the Boston University Tanglewood Institute.

Under the dynamic leadership of Phyllis Hoffman, who teaches voice at BU and has been deeply involved in a variety of projects at BUTI for over two decades, BUTI enrolls high school students from all over the world; in 2014, 39 come from the United States and 12 from foreign countries. Bringing together approximately 350 students each summer to the 64-acre campus (which is within walking distance of the Tanglewood grounds), the eight week season begins in mid-June with 12 two week workshops for individual instruments and continues with the Young Artists Program for orchestra, wind ensemble, voice, piano, composition and harp. These sessions run from three to six weeks, depending on the program. With a faculty of 75 drawn primarily from The Boston University School of Music, BUTI also brings its students into the “constant presence” of the BSO. It is a truly marvelous experience for these focused young musicians, and has led an impressive percentage of them to return as Fellows of the TMC. The program also affords them an opportunity to play with peers at their own or higher level in an atmosphere that is challenging, motivational, and inspirational.

Culminating the first two weeks of the program was the concert on Saturday afternoon, July 12th, when The Young Artists Orchestra performed under the accomplished baton of Tito Muñoz, a New Yorker who has just been appointed Music Director of The Phoenix Symphony. I had come especially to hear “Dances” from the chamber opera Powder her Face by the talented young English composer, Thomas Adés. (I have never heard a live performance of the piece.) What took me by surprise was the quality of the music making, astonishing in a group so young.

Starting with Dvorák’s “Carnival Overture,” Mr. Muñoz and his enthusiastic orchestra got the season off to a terrific start. Having recently heard the Dvorák piece on the radio, I was struck by the precision of this young orchestra, which only seemed to get better and better. The Adés selection was outstanding. After a strong, almost flamboyant first part, the second dance began quietly, each section of the orchestra contributing to the slow rise and fall of the music with great sensitivity and concentration. In the third dance the percussion and brass shone, to the obvious delight of the players who were singled out by Muñoz at the end.

After the intermission was a splendid, vibrant interpretation of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. I have heard that symphony probably more than a hundred times, but in the intimacy of Ozawa Hall I heard nuances that revealed why Leinsdorf was so insistent that high school students be exposed to the Tanglewood experience. When it was over there was a great ovation that matched the verve of the players, verve that may be possible only when youth and talent are combined.

Precision and obvious competence were only part of the story. What made this concert so special was the joy conveyed by these young musicians, who, it is clear, take nothing for granted. Their complete immersion in the music was a pleasure to behold, and the audience in a packed Ozawa Hall was as responsive as any I have seen in all my years here.

Young Artists Vocal Program student in a Thomas Hampson masterclass. Photo: Rachel Rodgers

Young Artists Vocal Program student in a Thomas Hampson masterclass. Photo: Rachel Rodgers

When I talked to Phyllis Hoffman after the performance, she stressed three important aspects of this unusual summer program. She insisted that it was “artistic, academic, and holistic,” and she was absolutely right. You could feel the commitment that can come only when people are doing what they love in an environment which makes music available to them practically around the clock. For some of these students, this is an opportunity they never imagined. “We had one student who played his cello to escape the noise of gunshots emanating from the gang wars where he lived,” she told me. “When we called to tell him he had been accepted into the program on a full scholarship, he wept.”

Like many arts organizations BUTI is challenged by rising costs and the inevitable needs of a physical campus that is growing older and needs attention. Moreover, one of its most important mandates is to reach pupils who cannot pay their way, and there are many students on partial and full scholarships. Thus, it also strives to continue increasing scholarship resources — essential in a program with such a high standard — for the most gifted students, many of whom are from underserved populations. But under the leadership of the Dean of the College of Fine Arts at Boston University, Benjamin Juarez, an evaluation of the program is underway. Propelled by Juarez’s passion, there is great hope that BUTI will raise enough of an endowment to insure its connection to Tanglewood long into the future.

For now, there are several more Young Artists concerts both at Tanglewood and at BUTI’s West Street campus through August 19. If they are as good as the opening performance, we are all in luck. Those of us who are concerned with the future of classical music in this country should get there, with our children and grandchildren in tow. As Leinsdorf insisted, BUTI is an essential part of the entire picture we call “Tanglewood.”

Roberta Silman is the author of a story collection, Blood Relations, now available as an ebook, three novels, Boundaries, The Dream Dredger, and Beginning the World Again, and a children’s book, Somebody Else’s Child. A recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, she has published reviews in The New York Times and The Boston Globe, and writes regularly for Arts Fuse. She can be reached at

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts