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Boston University Tanglewood Institute (BUTI) Plays On

Leonard Bernstein at BUTI. Photos courtesy Boston University Tanglewood Institute.

By Jeremy D. Goodwin

One of Andrew Hitz’s fondest memories from his four summers at the Boston University Tanglewood Institute (BUTI) is the night he got in trouble.

As a wide-eyed teenager soaking up all things musical, the aspiring tuba player had the chance to see the great Leonard Bernstein conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood, in what would turn out to be the maestro’s last concert ever. (He died a few months later.) 

Determined to shake Bernstein’s hand after the performance, Hitz missed the last shuttle bus up the road to campus, and straggled in long after curfew.

“We got yelled at by the resident assistants. We said, ‘But we met Leonard Bernstein!’ They didn’t care,” Hitz says with a hearty chuckle. The incredible thing in retrospect is that, in the context of a program that gives its students a kind of skeleton key to the behind-the-scenes action at Tanglewood, this particular rendezvous with greatness was not an adequate excuse.

“Experiences like that were a little surreal then and they are even more surreal now, looking back on them,” the tuba player says. Hitz, who relishes time at his family’s lakeside cottage in Otis during the summers, toured the world as a member of Boston Brass for 14 years, and now teaches music students, plays selected gigs, and hosts a podcast about the world of professional brass players.

Pianist Lang Lang coaching a BUTI student.

The BSO’s own Tanglewood Music Center, whose fellows are college-aged or older, has the higher public profile. But BUTI creates its own beehive of activity while mostly serving high school students. Some of those teenagers you sometimes see lugging instrument cases alongside Rt. 183 on the way from the West Street campus to Tanglewood will be some of tomorrow’s classical-music stars. But you can hear them now; BUTI presents more than 70 performances each season that are open to the public. Almost all are free.

This is BUTI’s 50th season. On August 6, a day of campus tours, a piano recital and an alumni panel discussion will culminate in a 50th anniversary show at Ozawa Hall at 2:30 p.m., emceed by Berkshire favorite and BUTI alumna Lauren Ambrose. Other alumni range from Harry Connick, Jr. to Ken-David Masur, assistant conductor for the BSO, who led a program earlier this summer at Tanglewood featuring famed soprano Renee Fleming.

Lauren Ambrose, BUTI alumna.

The August 6 concert will feature commissions by BUTI alumni Nico Muhly and Timo Andres.

“I would like to think that there are a million such places scattered around the world,” Muhly says of BUTI, “but to me it feels like a unique thing. It certainly was in my life. It was a defining musical and social thing. It’s why I’m a composer at all.”

After his time in the program, which gives students access to leading professionals in the field and all the musical magic of Tanglewood, Muhly became the youngest composer to be commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, and has been a rising star on the scene, writing across genres. He’s written a score for the New York City Ballet, arranged work by pop stars like Rufus Wainwright and Sufjan Stevens, and wrote the music for the 2013 Broadway revival of “The Glass Menagerie.” He’s also been no stranger to the Berkshires since his time at BUTI, writing a commission for the Aston Magna Festival in 2014.

Composer/alum Nico Muhly.

“It was the first time I realized that this is a viable way an adult can behave,” Muhly says of his time in Lenox. “As a kid, saying you want to be a composer is like saying you want to be an astronaut. Then you turn up and go, not only can I do it, but it can be this great thing that happens in this beautiful landscape with all these fun people.”

New BUTI executive director Hilary Field Respass is the first person to hold that job in a full-time capacity; her predecessors doubled as Boston University faculty. Along with another full-time hire, she’s been charged with finding ways for the program to be more self-supporting and not wholly dependent on the university.

“We’re in a period of really focusing on expanding our network of support,” Respass says, citing outreach among alumni and other fans of the program. “We’re really being aggressive and assertive about finding partners to expand our base of support and expand our programming.”

And so, 50 years on and largely outside of the public eye, the aspiring musicians at BUTI continue to play, practice and soak it all in. All of Tanglewood is their classroom, and, once in a while, there’s even a really good reason to miss curfew.

Boston University Tanglewood Institute (BUTI) 50th Anniversary Celebration
Saturday, Aug. 6
9-10:30 a.m. Campus tours
11:30 a.m. Piano recital featuring students and alumni from the Young Artists Piano Program
12:45 p.m. Alumni panel discussion: “Changing Lives, Influencing the World”
2:30 p.m. 50th Anniversary Concert at Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood. Tickets: $20
4:30-6:30 p.m.: BUTI@50 Soiree post-concert reception. Tickets: $30

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