LENOX, Mass. — For more than 80 years, Tanglewood, the bucolic summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, has made the Berkshires a vital destination for classical music.
Now it is getting into the talk business, too.
With the opening this summer of the Linde Center for Music and Learning, the campus’s first major construction project in a quarter of a century, Tanglewood is dramatically expanding its programming of lectures, talks and master classes — which explained the spicy recounting of the love life of painter Georgia O’Keeffe and photographer Alfred Stieglitz here one recent Saturday morning.
“It is X-rated,” Sarah Greenough, a senior curator at the National Gallery of Art, warned the audience before reading from “My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz,” which she edited. “And although this does seem to be a fairly mature audience, if reading D.H. Lawrence or Henry Miller makes you uncomfortable, then just cover your ears, and your neighbor will let you know when I’m finished.”
The steamy letters, and Greenough’s discussion of the couple’s lives, art and complicated marriage, were all part of a $399 weekend of activities related to the premiere of Kevin Puts’ “The Brightness of Light,” an orchestral song cycle based on the correspondence that featured soprano Renée Fleming and baritone Rod Gilfry.
Mark Volpe, the Boston Symphony’s president and chief executive officer, drew an analogy with the sports world, whose fans watch not only the games themselves but also hours of pregame and postgame commentary.
“People want to watch how the sausage is made and learn more about individual personalities, their approach to practice, their approach to performance, the psychology of all this,” Volpe said.
So Tanglewood is offering full weekends like the O’Keeffe program, and others tied to Wagner programming, contemporary music and film music; master classes with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Fleming, and Andris Nelsons, the music director of the Boston Symphony; and talks from a variety of people, including playwright Tom Stoppard and Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of state, who discussed nation-building in connection with a performance of the Verdi Requiem. There are visual arts classes, too.
The Linde Center — four sleek wood and glass buildings that snake around a 100-foot red oak — and the educational initiative, which is being called the Tanglewood Learning Institute, are seen by Boston Symphony officials as opening an important new chapter in the history of Tanglewood, where the orchestra has summered since 1937.
The festival is still a big draw for classical music fans and vacationers in the Berkshires, with its A-list programming and its 524 acres of lofty pines and stately lawns — as well as a replica of the little red house where Nathaniel Hawthorne lived while writing “Tanglewood Tales,” from which the festival’s name derives.
Since 1940, Tanglewood has also been home to the Boston Symphony’s summer academy, now called the Tanglewood Music Center, which has trained generations of musicians since its first class, whose students included Leonard Bernstein, with teachers including Aaron Copland and Paul Hindemith.
Walking through the twisting paths of the grounds, the sounds of instruments often ring out from little huts nestled among the trees. But space is always tight.
With scores of fellows — more than a full orchestra’s worth — arriving each summer, and jockeying with other programs for high school and college students, not to mention the needs of the Boston Symphony, it can be difficult to accommodate all the practice and rehearsal needs.
“We had rehearsals beginning at midnight for high school kids,” Volpe said. “Which, obviously, high school kids don’t object to, but their parents might.”
It was that space crunch that led to the first discussions about Linde Center, which was completed after the orchestra raised $70 million for construction, fixing up its grounds and bolstering its endowment. (It is the largest construction project at Tanglewood since the opening of Ozawa Hall in 1994.) In addition to providing much-needed breathing room, officials saw it as a perfect way for Tanglewood to expand into the field of talks and discussions, which has been booming for institutions like the 92nd Street Y in New York and the Aspen Ideas Festival.
Volpe said that he saw an opportunity, as a generation of prosperous and curious baby boomers begins to retire — and that the recent success of One Day University, a presenter of live talks that has held popular days at Tanglewood in recent years, had caught his attention. He said that while the programming would be varied, it would mainly serve Tanglewood’s main goal: enriching the experience for people to enjoy classical music.
Unlike several other major U.S. summer music festivals, Tanglewood still devotes its core summer weeks in July and August to classical programming, relegating pop acts to the weeks before and after its main season.
It still offers some big-ticket orchestral events each season — a film night with John Williams, the former conductor of the Boston Pops, is a huge draw — but selling a summer’s worth of classical repertoire is a challenge in an age when it is rare for subscribers to attend weekly, as they once did. Selling tickets to people who attend sporadically means the orchestra must reach more people overall: Volpe said 285,000 households had bought tickets to Tanglewood within the past five years, a number he hopes will grow.
The Linde Center is winterized — providing opportunities for programming in the colder months, as well as rentals for weddings in the offseason. It also boasts something else in short supply at Tanglewood.
“We’re so happy to have you — and you’re happy to have our air conditioning,” Sue Elliott, the learning institute’s director, said on a sultry morning before giving a lively, unpredictable lecture about how artists are influenced by their settings.
Joan Slebos, a retired teacher from Ohio, said that she had decided to come to Tanglewood for the first time because she wanted to hear Fleming sing — and that when she heard there would also be a chance to attend educational programs with the well-loved soprano, she jumped at it.
“When I retired, I wanted to dabble,” said Slebos, who said that she had previously taken an opera education class in New York run by Road Scholar. “I wanted to do things that were interesting to me, maybe things I’d never pursued before.”
Emily Teller, of Westford, Massachusetts, said she had particularly enjoyed watching Fleming and Gilfry sing the new piece at a dress rehearsal — and then discuss it over a lunch.
“It has made tonight’s performance so much more part of my DNA,” Teller said on the afternoon of the premiere, after listening to Puts describe his evolution as a composer. “At first I thought $400 was a lot. But per minute? It’s cheaper than going to Streisand.”
Volpe and Elliott said that they were still evaluating the program as it develops, watching which of the more than 140 events scheduled this season work and which do not, and thinking about adding special programs for amateur musicians.
“It is a learning institute,” Volpe said, stressing the words to make clear that the institute was learning, too.