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At BUTI, the Hills Are Alive

For high school virtuosos: mostly music, a little mischief


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In the video above, the dedicated and talented high school students of the Boston University Tanglewood Institute talk about practicing, friendship, and living and breathing music.

Fanning out across green fields and grassy hills in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, the BU Tanglewood Institute is where Fame meets Hogwarts. It is also a committed high school musician’s dream, where unrelenting discipline and youthful mischief coexist in perfect—well, almost—harmony.

“I’d have to say they’re all pretty much nerds,” offers BUTI alum Jessica Lascoe, a horn player earning a graduate degree in performance at Yale University, who returned to the institute this summer as a resident assistant. Supervising a dorm of 50 female prodigies, Lascoe tends to the homesick, the lovesick, and the occasional humbled perfectionist. Once they enter the embrace of Tanglewood, as next-door neighbors to the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, these kids—virtuosos, all—become something more than the girl who belts out Mozart arias, the boy who plays Liszt from memory, or the oboist who’d rather practice arpeggios than IM on Facebook. In the company of young people a lot like them, they shed their social reticence, often communing through chord and melody rather than words. A culturally diverse group, they are tightly bound by their reverence for music, which largely trumps socioeconomic status, race, and even the most daunting language barriers. “We’re all different,” says 17-year-old saxophone player Rachel Winder, “but all these people are here because they love the same thing you love.” This is Winder’s second summer at BUTI.

Now scattered among the major symphonies of the United States, those who’ve attended the joyously acronymed summer program (“Shake your BUTI,” a dance poster suggests) never forget the experience. Since 1967 it’s been a place where at a still-tender age life and music converge. Whether they’re part of the orchestra, chorus, wind ensemble, or chamber groups, the students play at least eight hours a day, with some time off on the weekends. But it’s not unusual for informal quartets or trios to come together at a small performance shed or just start jamming on the lawn.

“We accept about 330 students from more than 800 applications,” BUTI director Phyllis Hoffman (CFA’61,’67) says in her lively voice-coach diction. Looking out toward a warren of tiny practice shelters not much bigger than the upright pianos they house, the College of Fine Arts professor explains that the imposing turreted stone building housing the dining hall and administrative offices was built as a “cottage” for industrialists fleeing the city during the 19th century’s gilded age. Although the summer sessions last four weeks or six weeks—each session culminating in a concert—Hoffman works year-round to make the season happen, overseeing national audition tours and the selection of foreign students, who try out by video or CD. This year marks the 10th anniversary of BUTI’s Young Artists Wind Ensemble, with two concert celebrations honoring the occasion. The second concert, at the end of July, featured a solo saxophone appearance by Kenneth Radnofsky, a CFA music lecturer, and an original piece by BUTI alum Jonathan Newman (CFA’94). Titled “Sowing Useful Truths,” the piece was commissioned by BUTI for the occasion.

“We have students from 38 states and 12 foreign countries, most graduating seniors, some returning to BUTI for a second year,” says Hoffman. There are 14 BUTI alumni in the BSO, and a congenial connection exists between the school and the great orchestra, with BSO members returning to teach and students invited to attend the Tanglewood concerts free. In late July, weeks after their arrival, they were all still giddy from hearing the BSO perform Mahler’s 2nd Symphony.

Music composition and performance have always thrived in idyllic country settings; think of Brahms and Mahler drawing inspiration from nature. BUTI is an immersion program whose students live and breathe music, as Brahms may have over a century ago. But they arrive at Tanglewood with a level of motivation that is likely to have isolated them at high school. “It’s a lot like a conservatory,” says Amber Withey, 17, a voice student from Atlanta who admits to being “exhausted all the time.” At what other summer camp would a bulletin board beckon people to sign up for the Strauss opera Ariadne on Naxos? “I love classical music, but I’ve never been exposed to this much,” adds Withey, who hopes to become a music therapist. Sprawled on a hillside during lunch break with three new best pals, she says she hopes to stay friends with her fellow BUTI students forever. As the young people stroll past, some toting instruments, calls of “Love you!” go back and forth. After just a few days they are frantically exchanging cell phone numbers, says Alyssa Keene, a baby-faced trumpet player from San Diego. “By the end of the first week we’re all Facebook friends.”

If BUTI’s lush surroundings and ethereal music spawn fleeting, impulsive romances (the RAs are sometimes called upon to drag lip-locked teenagers back to their respective dorms), they have also ignited love affairs that grew into marriages, Hoffman says. But mostly it’s about friends, says Winder, who was recently accepted at the Peabody Institute in her hometown of Baltimore. “When I first came here it was totally different from anything I’m used to,” she says. “You’re just completely surrounded by wonderful musicians all the time; it’s really inspiring.” A John Coltrane lover who is also drawn to the classical sax repertoire, Winder says BUTI changed her life. “If I had to explain this place to my nonmusician friends back home,” she says, “I just couldn’t.”

When you’re at BUTI, says Jonathan Yeung, 17, a percussionist from Hong Kong, “you see just how magnificent music can be.”

Students in BUTI’s Young Artists Vocal Program, directed by Ann Howard Jones, a CFA professor and director of choral activities at the School of Music, will perform in a concert on Saturday, August 7, at 2:30 p.m. at Tanglewood’s Seiji Ozawa Hall, in Lenox, Mass. More information is available here.

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.


One Comment on At BUTI, the Hills Are Alive

  • Anonymous on 07.28.2011 at 9:20 am

    Ahhh... Tanglewood teens are the best!

    I’m smiling from ear to ear. What a wonderful way to start my day as an administrator at BU.

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