If you live in the Northeast, are looking for a great place to vacation, take a long day away, a short overnight, a three-day weekend or more, the Berkshires is the place for you. You’ll find plenty of high culture, big fun, great food, shopping, mountains, rivers, ponds and views.
It’s no secret that Western Massachusetts is a highly popular repeat resort destination. Travelers flock to the area from the U.S. and around the world. In fact, the Berkshires has been a busy go-to summer place since the 19th century, with its perfect summer climate and, when travel was slower, accessibility to major East Coast cities. Today, it’s only a 2-hour drive to Boston, and just under three to New York City.
Here’s our picks of five distinguished Berkshires-based cultural institutions worth the journey for a unique combination of culture, nature and fun.
In the town of Lenox, Tanglewood is the big dog of summer music festivals, not just in the Berkshires, but in the world. It’s the seasonal home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and has been going strong since 1940.
Many think of Tanglewood as a haven for classical music, but it’s actually much more than that — an intersection of disciplines with music as the axis point of a larger discussion. Tanglewood is situated on a bucolic estate of over 200 acres, providing the public a place to wander, picnic, relax and experience great performances through classical, jazz, pop, world, folk, you name it. It is also home to the new Tanglewood Learning Institute, Family Fun Fest, The Boston Pops and the Tanglewood Music Center Fellowship Program.
This season, concerts include Bach cantatas and Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, popular artists including Josh Groban, Meow Meow and regular James Taylor, and guest lecturers like former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright.
Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival
Nearby in Becket, another world-class summer festival is a noted comprehensive professional dance campus developed by modern dance luminary Ted Shawn in the 1930s. Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival has always fostered dance in its many forms, from early modern dance to ballet, jazz, ballroom, urban, contemporary and folk dances from around the world.
Set in front of a stunning backdrop of the local mountain range, The Pillow has fostered such choreographic greats as Alvin Ailey and José Limón, with world premiers commissioned from Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor. Ballet stars Margot Fonteyn and Mikhail Baryshnikov have been showcased in the original 620 seat ‘barn’ theater (known formally as the Ted Shawn Theatre). It is the Pillow’s main performance hall.
Visitors can take a tour, catch multiple performances daily in venues that are uniquely intimate, watch a class or rehearsal, enjoy a lecture, have a picnic, or dine at one of the three on-site restaurants.
This season’s roster includes Vancouver’s Ballet BC, Dance Theater of Harlem, Umanoove, Caleb Teicher & Company, Martha Graham Dance Company and the All Styles Dance Battle.
One of the largest centers for visual and performing arts in the country sits squarely in the state’s northwestern reaches, in North Adams. Primarily recognized by the general public as a museum, MASS MoCA is actually 50 percent performance-oriented.
The converted factory complex that opened in 1999 is huge — 250,000 square feet huge. It fosters exhibitions and performances of known and emerging artists, and is actively involved in supporting the creation of new work. The site is able to offer visual and multimedia artists the ability to create large-scale installations that simply would not fit in many other spaces. Performances include dance, cabaret, dance parties, rock, films and theater, often with an off-center, progressive bent.
A visit here is great way to spend a day, pushing your brain and heart outside of their standard boundaries. This summer, guests will see Bang on a Can LOUD Weekend, Laurie Anderson presents Loud Reed Drones with Stewart Hurwood, “Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective” and artist-experimenter Natalie Jeremijenko’s Tree Logic.
Williamstown Theater Festival
There’s summer stock, and then there’s summer stock. Tony Award-winning Williamstown Theatre Festival, founded in 1954, brings Broadway and off-Broadway plays, serious — and often famous — actors, playwrights, directors, designers and technicians for eight weeks every summer to its Williamstown-set theater complex. You’ll recognize WTF alumni, including Bradley Cooper, Blythe Danner, Frank Langella, Nathan Lane, Gwyneth Paltrow, Christopher Walken and Sigourney Weaver, among many, many others.
Fine actors working on small stages is an experience not many would want to miss. Audiences are close enough to experience the actors’ every emotion. Shows include classics, innovative dramas and world premieres, but patrons can also enjoy readings, talkbacks, weekly post-show parties, cabaret and tours.
This season, Law & Order fixture S. Epatha Merkerson stars in Lorraine Hansberry’s “Raisin in the Sun,” Uma Thurman takes on a new translation of Henrik Ibsen’s “Ghosts,” and JoBeth Williams originates her role in the world premiere of Bess Wohl’s “Grand Horizons.”
Norman Rockwell Museum
Stockbridge, perhaps one of the most charming of small Berkshires towns, is home to the Norman Rockwell Museum, which is dedicated to the art of illustration.
Its titular artist lived in Stockbridge for the final 25 years of his life, and the picturesque nature of the town reflects the optimism present in much of his work. The sheer virtuosity of his painting is breathtaking and worth seeing in the flesh. The museum houses the largest collection of his art and archival materials, exhibits works by art by other illustrators, and hosts talks and conferences on illustration.
Guests can visit Rockwell’s studio, picnic or simply explore the 36-acre grounds. Not all of Rockwell’s works are in the permanent collection at the NRM, but to put you in mind of the images, you may remember “Freedom from Want,” (a Thanksgiving family table) or “The Problem We All Live With,” (a portrait of Ruby Bridges, accompanied by four U.S. Marshals, as she enters her formerly segregated school in New Orleans).
In this digital age, we may take images for granted, but you won’t when you view Rockwell’s work, and think about his extraordinary talent.