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A musical anniversary in the Berkshires

Boston University Tanglewood Institute celebrates 40 years of growth

Lauren Ambrose, Phyllis Hoffman, Brenda Patterson, and Georgia Jarman at the Boston University Tanglewood Institute’s 40th Anniversary Gala Concert on July 29 in Lenox, MA. Photo by Michael Lutch

With a warm afternoon breeze mingling with the music, the Young Artists Orchestra of the Boston University Tanglewood Institute (BUTI) lofted the
minor chords of a specially written piece, It Remains To Be Seen, through Seiji Ozawa Hall and out past the wide-open rear wall and over the manicured lawns beyond. As Phyllis Hoffman (CFA’61,’67), BUTI’s executive director and a CFA associate professor, later pointed out, it would be hard to find a more fitting piece of music to mark the 40th anniversary of the summer program for gifted high school musicians. Written by Nico Muhly, a 1997 alumnus of the BUTI Young Artists Composition Program, the nine-minute musical remembrance was inspired by a singularly BUTI experience: leaving an evening performance of the BSO and walking back to the dorm on a curvy back road, arguing about the music in pairs and threes, and at the sight of bright headlights from behind, reorganizing in single file as a car speeds by. 

That lively and provocative piece was one of six works performed at last Saturday’s BUTI 40th Anniversary Gala Concert, the centerpiece of a three-day celebration that included five concerts, two receptions, and a panel discussion about the ways the program changes the lives of graduates. Those ways, it turns out, are many and powerful.  The Sunday morning panel discussion, moderated by Phyllis Curtin, a former leading soprano with New York’s Metropolitan Opera and a CFA professor and dean emerita, offered reminiscences from four BUTI alums: James Gaffigan (Young Artists Orchestra, 1997), associate conductor designate, San Francisco Orchestra, who conducted the Anniversary Gala Concert; Muhly (Young Artists Composition Program, 1996, 1997); Mae Lynn Arnold (Young Artists Orchestra, 2005, 2006), a violinist with the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra; and Lauren Ambrose (Young Artists Vocal Program, 1994, 1995), an actress best known for her role as Claire Fisher in Six Feet Under.

Gaffigan told a gathering of 200 alumni that he first came to BUTI as a bassoonist from New York City. “I don’t remember much about playing the bassoon here,” he said. “What I remember are the incredible people I met here. I remember the concerts, and I remember looking up and seeing stars. I’d never really seen stars before.”

Ambrose, the only speaker not now a practicing musician, said the two summers she spent at Tanglewood were the most transformative experiences of her life. “There was something about steeping in the artists’ lifestyle that gave me the kind of idealism that helped me do what I do,” she said. “It planted in me the idea of being present in my life, and that idea informs my personal life and my professional life every day.”

Since the summer of 1965, when the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra invited the College of Fine Arts to create a summer training program for high school musicians as part of the BSO’s Tanglewood Music Center, BUTI has grown to an eight-week summer season that enrolls 350 students between the ages of 14 and 18 and draws participants from all 50 states and many countries. BUTI students rehearse and perform on the Tanglewood main campus and attend many BSO master classes, rehearsals, and other activities. The reciprocal nature of BUTI’s relationship with the BSO can be counted in the 11 BUTI alumni who have gone on to become members of the orchestra.

“BUTI’s reputation for providing gifted high school musicians with an unparalleled musical experience continues to grow as does the level of the students who attend annually,” said executive director Phyllis Hoffman. “Its alumni are members of the great orchestras and opera companies of the world, prominent as soloists, chamber musicians, teachers and music administrators.”

Walt Meissner, dean ad interim of the College of Fine Arts, praised the  Tanglewood Institute for its embodiment of the ideals and passions of its faculty. "We are proud to offer a program of  this caliber in such a lovely setting," said Meissner. "We hope to maintain its excellence for at least forty years to come."

The 40th Anniversary Gala Concert included performances by the Young Artists Orchestra, the Young Artists Chorus, and the Young Artists Wind Ensemble, as well as by BUTI alumni guest artists, among them internationally acclaimed soprano Georgia Jarman (CFA’97) (Young Artists Vocal Program, 1992, 1993); Brenda Patterson (Young Artists Vocal Program, 1994, 1995), winner of the 2004 Alice Tully Vocal Arts Debut Recital Competition; and cellist Owen Young (Young Artists Orchestra, 1979, 1980), who joined the BSO in 1991.