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Sweet benefactor James

Donating his fees for 5-day festival, pop star Taylor gives Tanglewood and classical music a lift

James Taylor, with his wife, Kim, has adopted the Berkshires as his musical headquarters. James Taylor, with his wife, Kim, has adopted the Berkshires as his musical headquarters. (Essdras M. Suarez/ Globe Staff)
By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / August 19, 2009

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LENOX - The tickets sold out faster than any others in recent Tanglewood history. And they were not for just one night, or one show; these tickets were for a weeklong festival celebrating a bald, 61-year-old, baby boomer icon.

James Taylor, who has adopted the Berkshires as his home and musical headquarters, will be performing at the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer campus. What’s more, the Grammy-winner, starting next Wednesday, will be the centerpiece of an unprecedented five-day festival. Never before has the BSO devoted so much attention to a mainstream musician.

For the BSO, which has faced financial challenges in recent years, the Taylor event will do more than introduce new visitors to the lush grounds of the campus. It will provide a financial boost. Instead of being paid for the gig, Taylor will give the symphony $500,000, his earnings after expenses. For Taylor, who has literally married into the BSO - his wife, Kim, was a longtime staffer and has now been elected to serve as a trustee - the concerts, roundtables, and master classes represent his latest and most dramatic show of support for the institution. Taylor, who played the cello as a boy, said that it is not by chance.

“The support for classical music is diminishing,’’ Taylor explained on a recent afternoon from his home in Lenox. “We have real concerns for what the future is for it. We also know it takes a huge structure to maintain a symphony and a lot of money.’’

The amount of Taylor’s gifts - the couple gave $500,000 this year and more than $700,000 in total from 2005 to 2008 - is large but not unheard of. The BSO has 60 other donors who have given $1 million or more over time. What makes the giving special, though, is that it is coming from a pop superstar. It comes as the relationship between the institution and the singer deepens.

Taylor has already committed to a pair of shows next July, and Mark Volpe, the BSO’s managing director, said that the singer can return for as long as he wants. Volpe imagines the musician holding a special place in the BSO’s history.

“When you think of the personalities who have kind of shaped Tanglewood’s history, you think of Koussevitzky, Bernstein, Copland, Ozawa, and now Levine,’’ said Volpe, listing the names of past music directors or prominent composers who devoted years to the BSO’s summer home. “Now, James is becoming one of the icons of Tanglewood.’’

There is history
James Taylor’s relationship with the BSO dates back to 1993. That’s when he played a concert with the Pops conducted by John Williams. It’s also when he met Caroline “Kim’’ Smedvig, the BSO’s longtime director of public relations and marketing. They went on their first date two years later and married in 2001.

Kim Taylor left the BSO officially in 2004, but she remained as a trusted adviser to Volpe. In 2007, she became a member of its board of overseers. In September, she’ll start a term as a trustee. In a joint interview with her husband at their home near the Tanglewood campus, Kim Taylor talked of having wanted to organize a festival around James’s music for several years. He resisted, she said, both because he didn’t want to commit to dates that might cut into his normal touring schedule so far in advance and because he felt uncomfortable with so much attention.

“It was like pulling teeth,’’ she said, looking over with mock exasperation at her husband. “He only wants the attention on someone else.’’

James Taylor said his logistical concerns disappeared with the move to Lenox.

“Seven years ago, I didn’t think I’d be playing Tanglewood every year,’ he said. “And it turns out we do. And the other thing is I think the symphony, over time, feels more comfortable trusting me and my audience. There used to be this sort of distrust or apprehension that a pop act was a necessary evil, so you minimized it, kept your distance from it. I think over time people have gotten used to me and they’ve seen my audience won’t tear the place up too bad.’’

Rock bands play Tanglewood, including last year’s Wilco show. But such performances are usually one-off gigs in which the Koussevitzky Music Shed is basically used as a rental house. The Taylor dates are different. They include collaborations with John Williams, the Boston Pops, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and longtime BSO favorite Yo-Yo Ma.

Taylor’s generosity also sets the event apart. At Tanglewood, the only other pop star to give significant money is Billy Joel, who has contributed $300,000 over the years. In return, the piano room at the Tanglewood Visitors Center has been named after him.

“I think it is unique,’’ said Williams, the former Boston Pops conductor whose scores for “Star Wars’’ and “Raiders of the Lost Ark’’ have made him a major attraction at Tanglewood “film nights.’’ Williams had to reach back to the 1950s to find a reference point for the Taylors’ gifts. “Until this, Jack Benny and Danny Kaye were really the only show business celebrities that supported, in a vigorous way, American symphony orchestras.’’

Past, present, future
Taylor’s connection to these rolling hills began long before he met his current wife. As a young musician he struggled with depression and drugs. While making his first solo record in 1968, he grew addicted to heroin. That’s when he had himself committed to the Austen Riggs Center, a psychiatric hospital in Stockbridge. “It probably saved my life at one point, when I was at Austen Riggs, to come up here. I really did drive the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston,’’ he said, referencing a famous line in his song, “Sweet Baby James.’’ “I have a real connection to this place.’’

So does his wife, Kim. A former newspaper reporter, she started working at the BSO in 1980. While “James is basically very shy, a quiet, private person,’’ said Williams, “Kim has been an expert press person for many years. She’s very, very savvy.’’

It was only recently that James Taylor returned to the Berkshires for good. He and Kim bought a 100-acre property in Lenox in 1999, renovated the house four years later, and moved in for good in 2006. The main house is atop a hill. A pool and guesthouse are nearly finished. And Taylor, who decided not to re-sign with a record label after his contract expired in 2005, built a barn for all of his music business. That’s where he recorded his last album, “Covers.’’ On the top floor, a pair of workers sit at computers taking care of Taylor-related business.

“We feel so fortunate to be here,’’ said Taylor. “We love the people here and are increasingly grateful for our life here.’’

The BSO is also grateful. Though it is arguably the financially healthiest orchestra in the country, with an endowment of $305 million, the symphony hasn’t been immune from the economic downturn. That has meant deficits, including a $429,000 shortfall in 2008. Earlier this year, the BSO laid off 10 staff members as part of a 5.3 percent budget reduction.

Taylor is able to drive visitors to the BSO’s summer home. In 2002, Taylor set a record by drawing more than 24,000 people to a concert. But the show sparked such a traffic jam that local officials told the BSO it could no longer sell more than 18,000 tickets per concert. This year, Taylor has sold more than 60,000 tickets for his appearances. The festival includes a master class with Taylor band drummer Steve Gadd, a roundtable with Williams and Rolling Stone Magazine founder Jann Wenner, and a series of concerts with Sheryl Crow and Yo-Yo Ma.

The BSO has prepared for the onslaught of fans. Screens will be added to the shed for the Friday and Saturday night concerts with Crow and Ma. A special LED screen will go up at Ozawa Hall for the Thursday night conversation and performance spotlighting Taylor’s band. (Taylor will also participate.)

And he’s already thinking about next year. It won’t be a full-fledged festival, but he’s booked to play July 4 and 5 and hopes a range of longtime musical friends - anyone from Paul Simon to Carole King, Bonnie Raitt to Jackson Browne - might join him onstage in 2010 or beyond.

“I have the sense that my audience is less and less excited about getting poison ivy, sitting in the mud, and being bitten by mosquitoes,’’ said Taylor. “The thing about Tanglewood is that it’s the best available lawn experience. Tanglewood got it right.’’

It won’t be easy to find a place to stay during the Taylor weekend, said Peggy Roethel, innkeeper at the Garden Gables Inn, which has been booked for months.

“He’s like a native son,’’ she said. “I think next to Norman Rockwell, he’s held in the highest regard. People say when he does that ‘Stockbridge to Boston’ thing, the roof falls down.’’

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