Listen to the Music… Up Close and Personal

I won’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of Steve Piper. I hadn’t either, but here’s the point; Steve is a journeyman singer-songwriter I heard last month while traveling in Western Massachusetts, and in this life, when you’ve been around for a while, you begin to appreciate how much talent there is – in your neighborhood, in your city, maybe even in your own family. I’ve been saying this for a long time, but it hard registered last month when I heard Steve play one night in Stockbridge.

That night, after a day meandering around the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts, we decided to see if we could track down a good burger. There weren’t a lot of choices but the Lion’s Den in the basement of Stockbridge’s Red Lion Inn looked promising. There were a few other patrons, but it wasn’t crowded. We settled in, ordered burgers, a Pinot Grigio and a draft ale.

I’m not a good judge of age anymore. I tend to think anyone with gray hair and a few wrinkles is my age. Not true, but my tiny mind wants to believe it. Regardless, about 9 p.m. a guy “about my age” took the small stage, tuned his Martin, and did a short sound check while we were waiting for our burgers.

As noted above, there is an immense about of talent in the world, and when Steve Piper, the guy nobody’s ever heard of, opened his set with a 12-bar blues run and the first verse of Sweet Home Chicago I knew we were in its presence. I didn’t talk with him, so I don’t know if he makes his living as a musician or pounds nails on a local construction crew, but he was good and it was a treat to listen to him play and sing. We stayed for two sets as he covered John Prine’s Angel From Montgomery, some Stevie Ray Vaughan, and one or two of his own songs. Good stuff… and live.

Steve’s talent was notable, but our visit to the Lion’s Den is an example of something else I’ve felt strongly about for a long time. The ordinary in-person experience of a performance, whether it’s music, theater, or gallery art, is worth more than a dozen videos of a great performance. I spend too much time in front of a computer and often see “Watch Live Now.” But, if it’s up close and personal, even across a room or stadium, it’s different. There’s a human connection with the artist communicating in his or her special way. I’ve known a few famous musicians, actors, and artists, and all of them speak through their particular medium. Some are eloquent off the stage, and some are so shy you can’t imagine how they overcome it in performance. In any case, it’s always better live.

All this is background to the reason we were in the Berkshires. After a week with friends in Rhode Island, our destination was Tanglewood the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and a music venue like no other – a sprawling 210-acre park two hours west of Boston with a lovely lawn, a visitor’s center and several performance halls. This summer it’s celebrating the 100thanniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth and featuring some of his work.

Throughout the day and during the evening music can be heard across the park at Tanglewood. Admission is generally free during the day, with ticketed performances in the evening. One of the secrets of Tanglewood is the dress rehearsal. These usually take place a day or two before the scheduled performance and the audience is treated to an inside look at how the conductor, performers, and music, are fine-tuned prior to an upcoming performance.

During our three days at Tanglewood, we saw and heard a dress rehearsal of La Bohemewith Susanna Phillips as Musetta and Kristine Opolais as Mimi, a piano recital with Paul Lewis playing a Mozart concerto, the BSO and Tanglewood Festival Chorus performing Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms on the 100thanniversary of Lenny’s birth, and a minidress rehearsal with the flamboyantly glamorous Yuja Wang (below) playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #1.

Tanglewood is unique in many respects; Because it is not in a metro area there isn’t any drop in traffic. It’s a destination experience. You know it’s there and you’re willing to drive for two hours and pay for overnight accommodations in order to see and hear world class musicians do their thing in an informal park setting. The performance halls at Tanglewood are indoor/outdoor spots surrounded by grassy lawns, and many of the audience members choose to picnic on the lawn rather than be seated in the Koussevitzky Shed, the largest of the venues, or the smaller Seiji Ozawa Hall (below). We paid $34 to sit inside but tickets for the lawn are less.

Everyone loves summer, and it’s the perfect season to experience live action – music, theater, and art. There are outdoor art festivals, Shakespeare in parks, and concerts at wineries. There is no better time to Watch Live. Get out there and as Nike says, Do It.We loved our experience at Tanglewood and the evening with Steve Piper at the Lion’s Den.

Now we’re home in Seattle, and last weekend we went to see Lauren Weedman Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, a one-woman show at ACT Theater written and performed by the title character. After the show there was an audience Q and A with the playwright/actress and her director. The play wasn’t perfect; most things aren’t, but the Q and A provided a personal encounter with an artist and a work in progress that gave us insights into the artistic process. I hope you can find a performance close to you that will give you the same experience. Remember… whether you buy a ticket or sit on the lawn it’s better to –


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