Melville feted at Tanglewood

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When writer Herman Melville bought his Arrowhead farm on Holmes Road in Pittsfield in 1850, he was penniless. When he left the farm 13 years later, having completed his masterpiece, "Moby Dick," he was devastated. It had brought him neither fame, nor fortune. But if there is an afterlife, somewhere he is celebrating. At Ozawa Hall, at Tanglewood, on Saturday night, a cast of movie stars, ABC anchor Peter Jennings and the governor of the commonwealth paid homage to his work. Celebrities cited Melville's work as an important source for wisdom and insight on the nature of evil in these uncertain times. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of "Moby Dick." Governor Jane Swift declared October 13 permanently and forever "Moby Dick Day" in Massachusetts. Swift referred to the "unmatched creative energies" of the Berkshires, which has drawn artists and writers over the last two centuries. "These hills and valleys have inspired painters, writers and artisans to capture the American spirit," she said. Good versus evil Melville, Swift said, "explored how we discover and confront evil," in his whaling saga of Captain Ahab, the mariner obsessed with destroying the whale that maimed him. She called Arrowhead "a literary shrine, study center and archives," and recognized members of the Berkshire Historical Society, who planned and orchestrated the evening's events to raise money for its restoration. A short underwater film of whales from the National Geographic Society enveloped the audience with hypnotic images of the arching, graceful, lumbering giants of the underwater world. Particularly poignant was an image of a group of whales sleeping - vertically, with their heads not far from the surface of the water. James R. Schlefer, provided musical accompaniment, performing George Crumb's composition, "Voice of the Whale," on flute. The audience enthusiastically received a capella sea shanties by Jeff Warner and Bruce MacIntyre. Nearly 800 people attended the event. Peter Jennings needed no introduction. Applause greeted him as he moved onto the empty stage. "I need not tell you that the country has been through a lot," he began. "Tonight we're going to take the president at his word and get on with living and enjoying our lives."Thunderous applause met his words. Jennings noted the irony that "this eternal classic should have been shaped by an industry no longer acceptable by so many." Jennings then began a short overview of the history of whaling in New England. He continued speaking as a silent film from the 1920's, depicting a whaling excursion, appeared on the large screen behind him. Mystic Seaport Museum provided the film. Afterward, he introduced the "readers." Artistic Director of Shakespeare & Co. Tina Packer led the group, followed by film actor, writer and producer Ossie Davis. Theatre, film and television star Edward Herrmann ("The Gilmore Girls") came next, followed by "Law and Order"'s Sam Waterston. Actor Fritz Weaver, who plays Captain Ahab in a new BBC production of "Moby Dick," stood beside Jennings. Magical readings Jennings wove a narration of the story of Moby-Dick through the actual passages of the work, appearing enraptured during many of the readings. Most of the actors boasted stage experience and delivered dramatic and powerful readings. Ossie Davis left a powerful impression on the audience, with his reading of a New England preacher lecturing to the men about to go off to sea in Chapter 9,"The Sermon." Fritz Weaver was compelling and convincing as Ahab, shaking his fists at God, as he pursues his obsession, regardless of its danger or harmfulness to others. Edward Herrmann, who delivered Lincoln's 2nd Inaugural Address at Chesterwood's 75th anniversary celebration, also read Ahab. Sam Waterston read Ishmael, the young protagonist, who is the only one to survive the fateful voyage. Packer's selections varied, with a wide range of dramatic intensity. The readers received a standing ovation. Jennings co-wrote his narration with Stockbridge resident and Historical Society member, videographer Gordon Hyatt. Ozawa Hall was nearly full, with only some balcony seats remaining empty. The gala featured some humorous moments. "How many of you have actually ready "Moby Dick?" Jennings queried the audience, early in the evening. About one third of the orchestra section raised their hands. "How many read him for the first time voluntarily?" was the next question. That show of hands was considerably smaller. Pittsfield freelance writer Darlene White was among those whose hands went up for neither question. But she was committed to give it a try after hearing the dramatic orations of the evening. "I'm floored," she said, after the performance. "I'm a believer." Berkshire Eagle editor David Scribner, a Melville enthusiast, also attended the event. Some of Melville's descendants, including his great, great, great, great, granddaughters were present. Following the performance, the cast was ferreted away to the Gateways Inn, where a champagne toast donated by Heidsieck Champagne entertained higher-priced ticket holders and dignitaries. According to program notes, Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne enjoyed Heidsieck champagne when they first met at a Monument Mountain picnic in 1850.

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