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Four Berkshires ‘Heroes’ — Bernstein, Shakespeare, Homer And Stoppard

Detail of Winslow Homer's "Undertow." (Courtesy of Clark Art Museum)

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LENOX, Mass. — Leonard Bernstein is the reason I started going to the Berkshires in the first place. I took a day trip in 1984 to see him conduct Beethoven’s “Eroica” and his own Symphony No. 1 and, except for the following year, returned for his Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts at Tanglewood every summer until his final concert in 1990.

Here’s one of the more famous concerts, from 2007, when Midori broke two strings on her violin while performing Bernstein’s “Serenade.”

There hasn’t really been anything like it since — at least until last weekend when the BSO under David Newman accompanied the projection of a beautifully restored version of the film. I don’t know that I or anyone else there was prepared for the thrill of hearing that great music played by an orchestra like the BSO. (Click here for a full review.) In later years Bernstein would record the music with a full orchestra and a cast of opera singers, but I think that even he would say the BSO version is the way to see and hear it. And we don’t have to talk about it in the past tense. The BSO will be re-creating this concert three times, Feb. 14-16, at Symphony Hall.

David Newman conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra in sync with the film version of "West Side Story." (Hilary Scott)

David Newman conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra in sync with the film version of “West Side Story.” (Hilary Scott)

As for Tanglewood, there are any number of seductive events coming up. We get a preview of their new conductor, Andris Nelsons, when he conducts Verdi’s Requiem, July 27. Mark Morris’s exciting dance company is coming Aug. 1, and the festival of contemporary music begins Aug. 10, curated by the smart French pianist Pierre Laurent-Aimard. Paul Watkins takes over as cellist for the Emerson String Quartet Aug. 14 and another pretty fair cellist, Yo-Yo Ma, has one of his Goat Rodeo Sessions the following night.

While you might go to the Berkshires for Tanglewood initially, it doesn’t take long to start reveling in the area’s other cultural offerings. A second great arts institution in Lenox I make it a point to see every summer is Shakespeare & Company. This year the “company” is represented by one of today’s best playwrights, Tom Stoppard. He’s translated a very wry French comedy, “Heroes,” by Gérald Sibleyras, about three veterans of World War I trapped in a retirement home. Three of the company’s veterans — Jonathan Epstein, Malcolm Ingram, and Robert Lohbauer — have a ball with the material, making it sound like “The Golden Girls” (or boys) meets “Waiting for Godot” as they ponder the sameness of their existence and plot a grand breakout (together with a statue of a dog).

Malcolm Ingram (Phillipe), Jonathan Epstein (Gustave), Robert Lohbauer (Henri). (Photo, Kevin Sprague)

Malcolm Ingram (Phillipe), Jonathan Epstein (Gustave), Robert Lohbauer (Henri). (Photo, Kevin Sprague)

I wish Shakespeare & Company would do some of Stoppard’s own work, rather than his translations, but fortunately the Williamstown Theatre Festival is obliging this year with “Hapgood,” starring Kate Burton. This is a very dense play about cold war espionage in which double agents stand in for our dual nature. As you have to pay attention to the difference between wave theory and particle theory you might want to skip wine with dinner. I don’t think it’s Stoppard’s best play — he doesn’t square the drama with the science as well as he did in “Arcadia.” His countryman, Michael Frayn, covered some of the same philosophical ground about uncertainty to much more dramatic effect in “Copenhagen.”

Still, it’s Stoppard, and anything he does has its own unique dizzying and dazzling rewards, particularly when the acting and overall production is as good as this. Evan Yionoulis, who did such an uninspired job with “The Real Thing” at the Huntington Theatre Company, is less buttoned-up here, and her brother, Mike, provides some excitement with his pulsating blip-hop score.

And while you’re in Williamstown, don’t forget the Winslow Homer exhibit at the Clark Art Institute. True, most of the work is from the Clark’s own collection, but while works like “Undertow” always knock you out with their narrative intensity the exhibit’s 200 works provide a sharper focus. It’s fascinating to see his growth from Civil War illustrator to an artist marching to his own drummer. While eschewing Impressionism, Homer’s paintings grow increasingly evocative and the exhibit captures that growth in a way that the usual tour of the museum does not.

Winslow Homer's "Playing a Fish." (Courtesy, Clark Art Institute)

Winslow Homer’s “Playing a Fish.” (Courtesy, Clark Art Institute)

Meanwhile, back in Lenox, we shouldn’t forget the Shakespearean part of the equation in Shakespeare & Company. There’s a terrific limited run of “Richard II” through the weekend. I’ve always loved the way this company tackles Shakespeare. There’s the analytical thought they put into the interpretation. Here we’re invited to think about the divine right of kings of ancient times in terms of today’s political religious factions in Egypt and elsewhere. But there’s also the way that the company preaches the natural use of voice as opposed to faux British interpretations. Rocco Sisto captures the poetry of the ineffectual leader, but the whole cast is in great shape, and great voice, throughout.

Rocco Sisto as Richard II hands the crown, wryly, to Bolingbroke in "Richard II." (Kevin Sprague)

Rocco Sisto as Richard II hands the crown, wryly, to Bolingbroke in “Richard II.” (Kevin Sprague)

They’re also doing a polished production of “Love’s Labour’s Lost” that’s fun, but if Shakespearean fun is what you’re looing for, we should mention that closer to home the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company is having a merry romp with “The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” with a score taken from Rat Pack recordings and some live versions by the cast and the band.