Arts, History, Jul/Aug 2017

The magic of Tanglewood picnics

By Gina Hyams

When I first started researching my book, “The Tanglewood Picnic: Music and Outdoor Feasts in the Berkshires,” I expected to learn about the venue’s legendary, over-the-top picnics. When I asked concertgoers to describe their picnics, however, more often than not, rather than talk about candelabras or signature cocktails, they deemed their picnics “magic.” I came to understand that the experience of picnicking on the Tanglewood lawn adds up to something that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

To picnic at Tanglewood is to participate in a grand tradition. Since 1937, music lovers have flocked to the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer home in Lenox, Mass., to picnic during concerts. The 526-acre campus is a picnicker’s paradise of sweeping lawns, woods, and a formal garden. Both the Koussevitzky Music Shed (AKA “the Shed”) and Seiji Ozawa Hall are open-sided, designed so that the music pours out of the concert halls to be shared with patrons sitting in the cheap seats on the grass.

“For many people, Tanglewood is a sacred space, a touchstone. The minute you step through the gates of this Berkshire icon, you’re enveloped by an all-sensory experience,” says Laura Wolf Brennan of Pittsfield, Mass.

A family heirloom

The place is imbued with a brilliant sense of artistic history and, for many, a poignant feeling of personal legacy: The tradition of picnicking at Tanglewood is passed down through generations like a beloved family heirloom. I’ve met countless people who were first introduced to Tanglewood as children and who now share the experience with their own children and grandchildren.

“The music accompanied my endless cartwheels on the lawn,” says Nadia Szold, who grew up in the Berkshires and who now lives in Los Angeles. “I remember Tanglewood being the perfect playground — from the spooky maze, to the marble sculptures, to the people watching, to the musicians practicing in the big old houses. Little did I know I was soaking up what would grow into a lifelong love of the symphony.”

There’s a profound sense of tranquility on the Tanglewood lawn. You might battle a little traffic to get there when Yo-Yo Ma or James Taylor are playing, but once you get situated on your picnic blanket, everything seems right with the world. You slow down and connect with your companions or, as the case may be, with the New York Times crossword puzzle, surrounded by the bucolic Berkshire landscape and breathing in the fresh country air.

An ‘inclusive’ lawn

In the old days, simple picnics of sandwiches, soda, and cookies from Blue Heaven Turkey Farm, Samel’s Deli, and Angelina’s Subs were the norm. Al fresco dining at Tanglewood took a gourmet turn in the 1970s and ’80s with the establishment of Nejaime’s Wine Cellars, Crosby Catering, and Guido’s Fresh Marketplace.

There is no wrong way to picnic at Tanglewood. It’s perfectly acceptable to show up with nothing, rent lawn chairs and seat cushions, and pick up grab-and-go sandwiches and salads from the food vendors there.

“The Tanglewood lawn is truly inclusive. It’s open to everyone who wants to participate, and the wonders of each blanket contribute to the experience of those blankets all around it,” says Alana Chernilla of Great Barrington, Mass. “It’s like a party where guests can arrive in pajamas or ball gowns, and all are celebrated for coming just in the manner that suits them.”

“What I love about a Tanglewood picnic is that the planning and anticipation are just as much fun as the picnic itself,” says Mary Ellen Richter of Norwood, Mass. Some picnickers go all out with lace tablecloths, crystal goblets, and even printed course-by-course menus, while others embrace a more casual approach with paper napkins, finger food, and backyard bouquets.

“There’s a picnic one-upsmanship going on that doesn’t feel competitive, but rather adds to the magic of this place,” says Eric Nixon of Portland, Ore. “You might smile and think, ‘Wow, look at that!’ when you see someone with a candelabra sitting on their cooler and then do a double-take when you see a crystal chandelier strung over a tree branch hanging above a group of people enjoying a lobster dinner.”

A creative multitude

Tanglewood picnics celebrate artistry both on stage and off. The joyful spectacle of picnics scattered across the lawn is dazzling. The grounds hum with the creative energy of audience members drawing and painting, knitting, reading, and playing all sorts of games.

“When I’m packing for Tanglewood, my first priority is wine, my second is knitting. I choose projects that are pleasant and simple, so I don’t need to stop and count stitches or read a chart or ignore my companions because I’m at an intricate part of the pattern,” says Marie Blauvelt of Great Barrington. “The act of knitting in public invites conversation — kindred spirits feel comfortable stopping by to inquire about the yarn or the project, and thus are new knitting friendships born.”

Tanglewood picnickers have a certain joie de vivre about the weather — be it basking in sunshine or huddling together under tarps to picnic in the rain.

“You don’t earn your Tanglewood Badge until you’ve huddled under a tarp while listening to fine music accompanied by precipitation percussion!” says Rick Tillotson of Colebrook, Conn.

Another reason Tanglewood picnics are so restorative is that … well, people sleep there.
“It doesn’t matter what time of day — 10 o’clock in the morning during a rehearsal or 10 o’clock at night after a concert — people are always napping on the Tanglewood lawn,” says veteran Boston Symphony Orchestra staff member David Chandler Winn.

What could be more relaxing than a glorious picnic followed by napping outdoors in the Berkshires while the world’s greatest musicians serenade your dreams?

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