Close encounters in the music shed

Robert Cowan joined the musical youngsters (and BBC broadcasters) at last weekend's Tanglewood festival
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Deep within the Berkshire Hills, some 150 miles east of Boston, Massachusetts, gifted musicians from both sides of "the Pond" gather for one of the world's great musical festivals. It's the centrepiece of a local cultural complex that also includes the Stockbridge Theater Festival, a fledgling opera company at Great Barrington, the Williamstown Theater Company and the South Egremont Chamber Music Festival.

The Tanglewood setting, which incorporates a summer-long Music Center for young musicians, is cast on a vast scale amid clusters of high-reaching pines, oaks and birches, rich foliage and wide, neatly mown lawns. Walk through the campus at mid-morning and you'll pass any number of wood-built buildings where talented players can be heard busily rehearsing. Even in the space of three days, I managed to eavesdrop on performances of Bartok's Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, a Brahms Cello Sonata, a Brahms Piano Quartet and Schubert's C major String Quintet.

This year, you might also have heard Seiji Ozawa rehearsing Peter Grimes (for performances later this month), or sat in on a percussion seminar, or chanced upon a senior representative from America's musical past, such as 90-year-old Eugene Lehner, violist of the feted Kolisch Quartet, long- term member of the Boston Symphony, colleague of Bartok and Schoenberg and a fund of unique memories.

"I'm the only one from the original orchestra who's still working here," Lehner tells me with a resigned smile; "all the others are either retired or dead." He talks of training young musicians, of persuading them to phrase with expressive weight. And, as scurrying students cower from the wet tail-end of Hurricane Bertha, he calmly dons the yellow sou'wester he'd bought just hours before (and is still rather proud of wearing), then trudges across the waterlogged pathways to his next appointment. I can barely keep up with him.

Then again, you may decide to attend a complete chamber music performance by youngsters trained under the wing of a distinguished instrumentalist - Joel Krosnick, cellist with the Juilliard Quartet, for example, or Leon Fleisher, the festival's artistic director and a pianist whose determined recovery from what everyone had assumed was a permanently incapacitated right hand is cause for celebration.

Tanglewood itself was the invention of a man who, many years earlier, hired a steamboat to take his own orchestra on an evangelical music tour down the Volga. Russian double-bass virtuoso Serge Koussevitzky also married into money, established a music publishing house and, as a highly charismatic conductor, brought the Boston Symphony to the peak of executive condition. The festival began as a local symphonic event, until a generous donation of land greatly extended its potential. In fact, it has dominated New England's musical life for almost 60 years, tirelessly promoting modern music and continuing to serve as the BSO's summer home (even the Press Office moves in, lock, stock and barrel).

The festival lasts from late June to early September and this year British radio audiences were able to sample the Tanglewood experience for themselves with a riveting sequence of live concerts, documentaries and recordings broadcast on Radio 3 last weekend (see "music on radio" overleaf). Dr John Evans, head of music for Radio 3, had a crack team of production, presentation and engineering experts in situ, while out on campus the BBC's presence could be seen far and wide - from a makeshift office in an old garage to a satellite dish perched beside the two-year-old Seiji Ozawa Concert Hall.

But the hub of activity was at the compact Bernstein Memorial Pavilion, where, as students trod the boards for practice sessions, Evans and his team took root among a hefty stock of electronic units that spawned a spaghetti junction of leads and cables.

By 11.40am last Friday (4.40pm, UK time) - the Tanglewood Weekend started at 12 noon (5pm, UK time) - the tension has reached fever pitch. Presenter Humphrey Burton paces the floor, reading aloud and making last-minute alterations to his script, while his colleagues Geoffrey Smith, Robert Ziegler and Jamie Bernstein-Thomas (Leonard Bernstein's oldest daughter) sit primed for action in the next-door studio. Clock-watching is compulsive and yet, once on air, Burton's opening gambit engenders immediate enthusiasm and the lead-off sequence - a top-gear Music Machine with Tommy Pearson and a specially tailored edition of In Tune - blaze bright for all that follows.

"This is all going very well," exclaims Evans with justifiable glee while, back at the Serge Koussevitzky Music Shed - a huge, semi-circular structure with room for 5,000 inside and 5,000 more on the lawns beyond - Seiji Ozawa is preparing an evening performance of Strauss's Alpine Symphony. The actual concert features its own catalogue of surprises, not least an off-stage brass "hunting party" that suddenly appears, suitably spotlit, along the right-hand side of the Shed, and a metal sheet (one of Strauss's "storm" props) that warps visibly under pressure.

The powerful opener was William Bolcom's bold MCMXC Tanglewood, a brawny miniature redolent of late Copland and a work that had already echoed through the campus during an impressive morning rehearsal, while John Browning made a versicoloured showpiece of Samuel Barber's highly approachable Piano Concerto (it's one of the composer's party-pieces).

Ozawa's second orchestral concert, however - including a beautifully drawn Schoenberg Verklarte Nacht and a rather stylised (and occasionally off-colour) Ravel Sheherazade with Jessye Norman - was not broadcast.

One that was, but that side-stepped Tanglewood for the nearby Lenox Town Hall, featured the legendary Modern Jazz Quartet pianist John Lewis, backed by Marc Johnson on bass and Albert Heath on drums, for a smoky sequence of standards and Lewis compositions. With lemonade and cookies in the interval and a wealth of overheard reminiscences, it was something of a jazz buffs' paradise.

The audience was hand-picked, the atmosphere quietly adoring and Lewis himself - whom Geoffrey Smith aptly described as having "no ego", and who, almost 50 years ago, had started a short-lived jazz school in Lenox - offered self-effacing spoken introductions to such evergreens as Weill's "September Song" and Ellington's "Prelude to a Kiss". Lewis's wife sat in the front row, and to observe her smile, sway or clasp her hands as the music unfolded was poetry in itself. Lewis would chime a reference to Ellington, to Debussy, or even to Messiaen, with only a rhythm section to distinguish him from the more formal classical sector.

It was an unexpected delight, as indeed was the Leonard Bernstein Memorial Concert on Sunday night. Here we returned to the Shed for the student- based Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra under Robert Spano, former assistant conductor at Boston and music director-designate of the Brooklyn Philharmonic. Spano, a faculty member of the Tanglewood Music Center and an extremely competent technician, is definitely someone to watch. His handling of Brahms's Second Piano Concerto had great brio and gravitas (pianist Peter Serkin fussed over left-hand detail but kept his phrases light and springy), while Copland's tough-nut Short Symphony was suitably muscular and an extended version of Stravinsky's Firebird Suite prompted torrents of approval. I have little doubt that Bernstein himself would have been equally impressed by the energy and enthusiasm of these dedicated young players.

As it happens, Radio 3 listeners may not have noticed the commotion at the beginning of Kastchei's "Infernal Dance", where a fortissimo swipe on the bass drum caught some listeners napping. Suddenly the rear crowd was thrown into chaos, but within minutes all was on the beam again for a coruscating finale. Leaving the Shed after dark, one glanced back at its spotlit contours as if viewing some vast, alien spaceship on a friendly mission. And as "close encounters" go, this one was of a very special kind.