Open-air theater finds private-sector believers

AN army of construction workers in this small New England town has been racing against the clock to finish erecting a large stage in the middle of a carved-out forest. By the time maestro Michael Tilson Thomas lifts his baton for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra tomorrow night, only the final landscaping should be unfinished at the Great Woods Center for the Performing Arts. Promoter Don Law laughingly speaks of chewed nails as opening time draws near, but he needn't worry. Great Woods, the newest outdoor performing arts center in the Northeast, may be a massive undertaking, but it also may be a textbook case in how to study demographics to come up with a winner.

Strategically situated at the crossroads of two interstates (95 and 495), it's no more than 45 minutes from four major markets: Boston, Worcester, Cape Cod, and Providence, R.I., with a total potential audience of 5 million. It has corporate support (USTrust, WBZ-TV, Miller Brewing Co.) and a broad lineup of artists that should appeal to a wide variety of people.

``This is an extraordinary development for the Commonwealth and New England,'' says Anne Hawley, executive director of the Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities. ``It reminds me of the kind of vision Bostonians had around the turn of the century, when they built so many institutions. What makes it more exciting is that this project comes out of private-sector initiative.''

Boston conductor David Hoose commented, ``If they [Great Woods president John Drew and managing partner Sherman Wolf] can be brave and give Tilson Thomas carte blanche to take risks, the festival can have enormous impact on the East Coast. If they feel compelled to guide programming by business sensibilities, it could be very uninteresting.''

Located on a five-acre banked lawn near the historic Great Woods Forest here, this performing-arts center will serve up an eclectic program of classical, jazz, folk, and popular music, and some comedy. This summer, audiences can see the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Bill Cosby, or Ray Barretto & His Salsa Band, either under the stars or inside a huge roofed-over seating area.

The lawn and roofed seating area, which together will seat 15,000, are wide and shallow, ensuring that everyone will be able to see and hear.

``The great advantage of having a lawn like this is that you can come out for a very inexpensive seat with the family [and] picnic -- and you can be home within 40 minutes,'' says Mr. Law.

The programming combines standard classical pieces and family-style pops fare.

The season kicks off tomorrow evening with the 60-year-old Pittsburgh Symphony, which will be making its summer home here, conducted by Mr. Thomas. The symphony opens with the world premi`ere of ``Short Ride in a Fast Machine,'' a fanfare by John Adams commissioned for Great Woods; Saint-Sa"ens's Cello Concerto with soloist Yo-Yo Ma; and several Aaron Copland pieces.

On Saturday night, pianist Alexander Toradze and principal dancers of the Boston Ballet will join maestro Thomas and the symphony in a Tchaikovsky evening, including a perennial favorite for outdoor summer evenings -- ``The 1812 Overture.''

The popular programming also provides something for everybody: Julian Lennon, Julio Iglesias, the Pointer Sisters, Kenny Rogers, Jackson Browne, and Joan Baez are among the 50 acts in this series.

Mr. Law says that negotiations are under way with bus companies to provide transport for young people from Boston.

Great Woods will also feature a three-day jazz and blues festival, with over 20 groups, highlighted by Ella Fitzgerald, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Sonny Rollins; Irish Family Day; and a performance on Aug. 24 of ``Rudolf Nureyev and Friends.''

Great Woods will do more than just present music; its nonprofit Educational Forum is also involved in helping train musicians.

At nearby Wheaton College, 60 outstanding young instrumentalists at the Great Woods Summer Institute will spend six weeks taking part in intensive chamber-music coaching, under the direction of Mr. Thomas.

Teachers from the Boston Conservatory of Music, the Pittsburgh Symphony, and the Boston Chamber Music Society, will conduct master classes.

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