The Berkshires: low, green hills in western Massachusetts; country towns like Stockbridge, immortalized by painter Norman Rockwell on covers of the Saturday Evening Post; Lenox and Lee, splashed with Americana; 19th-century white clapboard houses; “cottages” dating from the Gilded Age; and in nearby North Adams the Mass MOCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art). The spectrum of performing arts is prominent today having developed over the past 67 years—Tanglewood for classical music and more, Jacob’s Pillow for dance and Williamstown’s Theatre Festival, the country’s top summer stage.
Just what is it about the Berkshires that draws one’s attention? The embrace of art and nature, old and new; the mingling of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in summer and the Appalachian Trail; the co-existence of Yankee residents and Manhattan weekenders; thoughts of Henry James visiting Edith Wharton at her home, The Mount, now open for viewing and for performances by Shakespeare and Company. The Berkshires have been filled with visitors and pilgrims since the 1850s when Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne came here to live modestly and to write.
For us The Berkshires and Tanglewood, whose 500 acres straddle Stockbridge and Lenox, are one and the same. Hawthorne lived near the shores of Lake Mahkeenac and it was he, author of Tanglewood Tales, who coined the very name, evocative of gnarled roots, soaring trees and since 1937 music rustling through the leaves. On pre-opening weekend the hills were alive with the sounds of music and with a lush grass carpet enveloping the auditoriums.
The first notes of Bach’s Concerto for Oboe and Violin (BWV 1060), magically floated through Seiji Ozawa Hall and its retractable back wall and undiminished by the open air reached the audience on the lawn. The dancers in the Mark Morris Dance Group began their bold steps. Unlike many troupes the company performs only to live music, usually classical, but sometimes jazz. Their first appearance in this venue was in 2003. Fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center, a gifted group of about 150 who are chosen to study here each summer, made up the chorus, string quartet, orchestra and soloists.
Morris is a choreographer of modern dance and a brilliant one, too, seamlessly matching strong new movements with the works of composers of baroque and chamber music. In Vivaldi’s Gloria, the most dramatic of the program’s four repertoire pieces, dancers slithered on the floor like caterpillars, took flight like a bird, ran and dove and slid across the stage on their stomachs. One hopes they continue to appear each season.
Ozawa Hall, celebrating its 10th anniversary, is a unique architectural work. Modern in structure with off-white stucco walls, it has double balconies whose railings are faced with teak on three sides of the building. Its design reflects intense thought about the needs of the audience and musicians. The stage can be flat as in a conventional concert hall or it can be reconfigured into terraced steps. Beyond the stage is a balcony from which the chorus sang during the final piece. The sloped floor insures that there are no bad seats.
Credit: Stu Rosner
On the Saturday preceding opening weekend Garrison Keillor and company are regulars at the unwalled Koussevitsky Shed for a live two-hour broadcast. License plates in the parking lot attest to the wide appeal of A Prairie Home Companion. Every seat was sold to an audience from all parts of the country. Clusters of picnickers, few of them content with sandwiches, were stretched out on the broad lawn. Before the 6:00 opening bell sounded and On Air lit up from the stage, Keillor’s fans set up for supper on low cloth-covered tables. They poured wine into goblets and retrieved elegant dinners from wicker hampers and Styrofoam coolers and ate off of china while listening to the program over great outdoor speakers.
G. K. paid tribute to the location and time of year, focusing on Independence Day and western Massachusetts in several of his shpiels and songs. Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter was given a contemporary spin. Guy Noir, Private Eye, a staple character on the show, was in Lenox to solve his latest case. Other regulars on Prairie Home Companion, including the All-Star Shoe Band and the Existential Bass Quintet, played and sang. The Bay State got most of the attention, but Keillor offered a monologue reporting the news about those mythical good folks of Lake Wobegone, where all the women are strong, the men handsome, the children above average, the minutest trivia comedic and the week has been a quiet one.
For Tanglewood events we prefer to listen from seats inside the Shed or Hall. On the lawn the scent of flowers, food and beverages sometimes distract. Outdoors the sounds dust you like pollen, but inside you are galvanized, not only from listening, but from watching fingers fly across keyboards and strings. When the concerts finish, music still echoes in your ears as you rush through the cool breezes to the parking lot to try to beat the traffic exiting the Main Gate and look up to see a star lit sky. How ever far you have traveled, once again you know it was worth the trip.
Musical talent will be showcased this summer as in previous and future ones for three full months from July through the end of September. Singers and instrumental guest artists will appear, the Boston Pops and string quartets will play, the Festival Chorus and Vocal Fellows will sing, the works of beloved classical composers will be on the programs and jazz will be featured, making Tanglewood the quintessential music festival.
Tanglewood, West St. (Rte. 183), Lenox, MA 01240. Tel. 413-673-5156, 413-637-1666.
The Berkshires is mostly about performance, but because of its bucolic setting it is ideal for outdoor activities, such as golf, hiking and fishing. The gilded cottages, some of which have been transformed into deluxe lodgings, are open for exploration, along with historic homes. An opera company, other theatrical venues and small museums make the area an activity-filled place to vacation. http://www.berkshires.org
Where to Stay
Credit: Edwin C. Fancher
Every evening, weather permitting, wine and cheese are served at 5:00 on the patio at Stonover Farm. Arrive promptly so that you miss none of the socializing at this friendly, top-rated B & B. Andrew Harper, who covers only the toniest properties in his Hideaway Report, named the Farm, now beginning its third year of business, as one of three best accommodations in the Berkshires.
During the cocktail hour and again at a communal breakfast, we got to know other guests and our charming and accomplished hosts, Tom and Suky Werner. Engrossed in conversation, the time flew quickly. “When Tanglewood’s open” said Tom, “it’s like summer camp here. There’s a buzz in town.”
Soon everyone was off to keep coveted dinner reservations or to attend the Tanglewood performance or both. It takes mere minutes to drive down a short stretch of Undermountain Road, across Route 183 to enter the Tanglewood grounds.
The next morning a variety of delicious muffins, whole grain bread, bagels, freshly squeezed juice, granola, yogurt and fruit salad lined the kitchen counter. We helped ourselves while Tom, the breakfast chef, prepared made-to-order omelets; the specialty that day was goat cheese and mushrooms, but you could, if you wished, ask for other fillings.
As we sat at the table in the sun-filled Creamery with large fan-shaped windows and floor-to-ceiling doors overlooking the duck pond and other buildings on the property, we talked about the Mark Morris Dance Company and the restaurants.
New Yorkers, Art and Arline, said, “We love Suky and Tom.” Having once owned a house in the area, they now visit often and call the inn their “home away from home.” .
John and his wife, who had arrived from New York with bicycles strapped to the roof of their car, went off to play tennis.
The other guests, Pam and Scott, who live in the Boston suburbs, rented Rock Cottage with a full kitchen for three nights and said that they prepared the evening meal there. “We love it here,” they added. It was their second stay and they planned to return.
At present Stonover has four accommodations. In addition to the cottage, a separate structure, there are three luxurious suites in the main house, whose layouts were carefully planned. Tom explained that Suite 3 where we spent the night was arranged so that
you enter through the sitting room, which has easy chairs and a desk. The slate and marble bathroom is placed in the least obtrusive space. Nevertheless, it is a splendid bathroom with shower heads at two different levels and the most attractive towel bars we’ve ever seen.
The Werners literally made a U-turn in the middle of their lives. Both Easterners, they spent nearly two and one-half decades in Los Angeles where Tom was a record producer and Suky a teacher at museums and schools. It would seem unlikely that the couple left an urban, high- profile world to become innkeepers. But it turns out that they are more content in their new roles than they had previously imagined they would be.
As we drove up Suky was happily gardening. “I didn’t know the difference between an annual and a perennial before buying this property,” she said. Her artist’s eye has stood her well and she has transformed the acreage with beautiful flowers, shrubs and trees.
Tom said that he always loved small New England towns and liked to stay at inns, but felt that most B and Bs were the same. His model for his own undertaking was that it be beautiful, charming and convenient.
Beautiful, it is indeed. The design from the carpeting to the colors bespeaks excellent and refined taste. The 110-year old main house has a foyer, living room, dining room, kitchen, pantry, breakfast room ( the Creamery), computer center and library so well filled that it offers something for everyone’s taste. The Werner’s private quarters are attached to the main house, but totally private.
What makes the farm so charming, in addition to the antiques and other well chosen furnishings, is the art on display. Some of it comes from the Werner’s own collection. Other pieces are from five California artists who were asked to show their work at Stonover Farm, a few of which are for sale. Suky has catalogued the works done in many mediums in "Artwalk," a guide to be used as a reference when looking at the walls and shelves. You will find photographs, ceramics, prints, needlework, a woodcut and sculptures made with unconventional materials. We were most impressed by Karyl Sisson, who used tape measures to make graceful bowls and who forms zippers and clothes pins into unusual shapes.
The convenience Tom alluded to is provided by the wired world in which we live. Every room has cable TV, a DVD player, private phone with voice mail, a Bose Wave Radio/CD player and remote control air conditioning.
Suky took us on a tour of the other buildings, one-room school house, which she plans to turn into a proper art gallery and a big old barn that if zoning permits will become a hall for weddings and charity events.
But most important in making a hostelry tick are the personalities of the hosts and the relationships they form with their guests. Suky said, “I love hosting the interesting people who stay with us,” and clearly those interesting people love their connection with the Wermans.
Stonover Farm, 169 Undermountain Road, Lenox, MA 01240, Tel.413-637-9100.
Wedding Party, Cranwell Resort
Credit: Edwin C. Fancher
A decade ago (see Yearly Index, Winter 1994-95) we visited and wrote about Cranwell Resort and Golf Club. Ten years later, we were back. In that time “Spa” has been inserted into the name. And what a spa it is. Housed in a separate building, it contains 35,000 square feet of fitness and beauty facilities. Four to seven classes are scheduled daily, including infusion combining yoga and pilates, which are also offered separately. Sport specific personal training is another unusual workout. A circuit-training class takes place in the 60-foot indoor pool. In addition to more than 45 aesthetic treatments—facials, massages and body envelopment—the spa houses an image center for cosmetology and hair, hand and foot care.
On this visit we stayed in the Mansion, the hilltop Tudor-style cottage that was once Wyndhurst, the largest of the five buildings housing guests. From our window facing the entrance we were able to look out at an arriving wedding party—the young bride and groom, the attendants in red dresses and tuxedos, the flower girl, the parents and grandparents and the guests, as well as the photographer who posed and shot the pictures. When we left the building drinks and hors d’ouevres were being served to the guests in the Main Hall and on the terrace. When we returned the band was still playing, but in this solid old structure we never heard a note. Cranwell’s storybook surroundings make it a stellar setting for weddings.
Among the other changes that have taken place in the years since we last overnighted is the summer entertainment. The cabaret-style News in Review, now in its tenth year at Cranwell, is a very clever fast-paced program of sketches and songs, spoofing those whose names make the headlines.
The signs on the walls—Dewey Wins, I Feel Your Pain, I Am Not a Crook, I Did Not Inhale and Lust in My Heart—preview the forthcoming satire. The tables are organized into sections with signs of places also currently making history like Boston, New York, the Supreme Court and Senate.
Nancy Holson, the show’s creator and writer, changes the program continually. Since Monica and Martha are off the front pages, this year’s fodder for fun are the Bushes, twins and mama included; gay marriage; rising gas prices; Donald Trump; Janet Jackson; Ralph Nadar; and the lawsuits against McDonald’s. The four actors-singers-dancers-jokesters-mimickers are a talented lot, but their impersonations are not quite believable. Dressed in kooky costumes (they change for each act) they grasp the essence of a person in much the same way as a Hirschfield caricature might. Barbara Bush, looking like a barrel and dressed in an outrageous wig, was a barrel of laughs. Of all the characters that were being poked fun at Bill and Hillary came closest to resembling themselves.
To make the 8:30 curtain we ate outdoors at Sloane’s Tavern, the resort’s casual restaurant. For diners on the run who want a substantial entrée, the low-carb dinner salads are a good choice. Choose between blackened swordfish, strip steak or grilled salmon over mustard greens or baby spinach with bleu cheese, apples and walnuts.
Cranwell Resort, Spa & Golf Club, 55 Lee Road, Lenox, MA 01240. Tel. 800-272-6935.
Music Room, Blantyre
Dinner at Blantyre, well it isn’t just dinner. It’s an entire experience, for Blantyre is above all a country house estate. You could be in Europe and for good reason. When Robert Paterson who made his fortune manufacturing turpentine at the turn of the last century when taxes did not deplete fortunes, decided to build a summer home he copied the feudal, castle-like features from his wife’s family home in Scotland. The ivy-covered mansion, abrim with turrets, towers and gargoyles was designed for entertaining.
The splendorous character continues indoors where one finds leaded-glass windows, high ceilings, a series of rooms both intimate and grand, mammoth fireplaces, wood panels and beams and a broad staircase that doubles back. The Pattersons collected museum-quality furniture, rare porcelains and tapestries, some of which are still displayed today.
In the years between the time when the Pattersons gave up the estate and the new owners, the Fitzgeralds, a Lenox family, reopened the property in 1981as a hotel, Blantyre’s illustriousness declined. Now it’s back to being one of the most luxurious and well-serviced hostelries of its kind.
When we arrived we were warmly greeted by Manager Katja Henke and shown to the porch adjoining the music room and overlooking a sloping meadow. A gentleman in a straw hat just like the one that Dirk Bogarade’s character wore in "Death in Venice" sipped a cocktail with his companion and exuded continental flair. Again we could have been in Europe. Soon a tuxedoed waiter brought us our drinks, a plate of nibbles and menus.
The standards for greatness in European and American restaurants are well established. The room must please the eye and give you a sense of arena where great things will happen. The wait staff must anticipate your every need and be knowledgeable about food.
And the dishes must not only be executed flawlessly, but must excite both the palate and the senses.
The dining room at Blantyre is like no other. Individual tables look just as they might in someone’s home. The pink tablecloths and the wine coasters, not withstanding, none of the table appointments were alike. The dishes, glasses, silver, flower arrangements, chairs and candle holders were different at each table. By day the dining room is set with one main table, but in the evening the space is reconfigured to match the dinner reservations.
Chef Christopher Brooks' early summer menu combined simplicity and sophistication. The chilled English pea soup with quail eggs and fennel truffle salad was smooth and satisfying. Noodles, scallions, radish and smoked shallot and ginger relish gave some zip to a starter of house-cured duck breast, which might otherwise have been bland. The tasting plate of lamb was a symphony of thrilling tastes; there was not a false note on the plate. Everything from the spicy sausage, rare rack and nutty-flavored crusted shoulder along with roasted garlic, sheep’s milk cheese flan and chanterelles harmonized beautifully. A grilled rib of beef was properly tender and accompanied by an exquisite assortment of sides: tomato zucchini gateau, heirloom fingerling potatoes lyonnaise and almost superfluous watercress and black pepper tarragon butter. When molten chocolate cake is offered as a dessert, who would order anything else? It was appropriately runny and as delicious as any rendition we’ve tried. Coffee, tea, chocolates, cookies and petit fours were served in the Main Hall after dinner.
Service is attentive and there is enough staff in the dining room so that wine and water glasses and bread baskets are refilled and dishes are cleared promptly
Starting in 2005 Blantyre will be open year-round. Its small spa is being enlarged, but will only be used by guests. Non-hotel guests are welcome in the dining room. Blantyre is a member of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux.
Blantyre, Blantyre Road, P.O. Box 995, Lenox, MA 01240. Tel. 413-637-3556
Takashi and Chieko Senzaki of Tokyo were in the U. S. for a conference and a vacation. While driving around the Berkshires they passed Cranwell and recognized the imposing Tudor structure perched on the hill as one that they had seen on a television travel program in Japan about golf resorts in America. Many Japanese play golf at Cranwell where the tree-lined fairways are set into rolling highlands. The Senzakis, however, came to Lenox, summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, for the Tanglewood Music Festival. Their accidental sighting of the hotel, they felt, was almost fated and so they checked in. Their impressions of Cranwell: "The accommodations were excellent, the main building and the cottages were quite beautiful and the food, although unfamiliar, was very tasty." On a guest form they noted that, "In Japan we would have received amenities like slippers and toothpaste and were surprised not to find such items in the room."
Cranwell, once a grand home named Wyndhurst, dates from the Gilded Age, a time when castles were called cottages because they were second residences in the country. Built in the late 1800s, it had 30 rooms, greenhouses, stables and a herd of cows on 380 acres. The gardens were designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, the most noted landscape architect of his day and the man responsible for designing New York City's Central Park.
A 1994 restoration was done in traditional Arts and Crafts style, which was popular in England in the early 19th century and suited to Cranwell's architecture--massive brick arches, leaded windows and an imposing staircase in the Great Hall. The Music Room, which is now the formal Wyndhurst dining room, has a carved ceiling, high wainscoting and a view over the golf course. The Great Hall is furnished with Oriental rugs, overstuffed sofas from London and French wall tapestries. There are 65 guest rooms in the mansion, cottage suites, Beecher's Cottage and the Carriage House. In country inn fashion they are comfortable, rather than luxurious.
The food in the main dining room is imaginative, well prepared and a tad more expensive than most of the other restaurants in the neighborhood. An appetizer of tea-smoked quail was delicious as was sauteed pistachio goat cheese. Steak and rack of lamb were top quality with good sauces and garnishes.
Cranwell Resort & Golf Club, 55 Lee Road, Lenox, MA 01240. Tel. 800-272-6935, 413-637-1364. Rooms start at $79 per night in winter for the Carriage House and Beecher's Cottage and reach $259 in summer for the cottage suites. Several attractively priced packages are available, such as the fall foliage package, which is $99 for two including full breakfast. Cranwell has facilities for conferences and a variety of flexible meeting rooms. www.cranwell.com
Tanglewood Music Festival, Jacob's Pillow Dance Company, Clark Museum, Williamstown Theater Festival and the Hancock Shaker Village.