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Arts & Culture November 2020


A holiday landscape of light and sound



The grounds of The Mount, Edith Wharton’s historic home in Lenox, will be transformed by NightWood, a holiday season light and sound show that opens Nov. 19 and runs through Jan. 3. Courtesy photo


The grounds of The Mount, Edith Wharton’s historic home in Lenox, will be transformed by NightWood, a holiday season light and sound show that opens Nov. 19 and runs through Jan. 3. Courtesy photo


Contributing writer

LENOX, Mass.

The gardens will wake with elf-light and firelight, a drumbeat and a sound of bells.
Edith Wharton loved the stars and the night sky, said Susan Wissler, executive director of The Mount, Wharton’s historic home in Lenox. She had books on astronomy, and she wrote of her memories of stargazing on the terrace and the widow’s walk.

When she lived in France, she would be at Hyeres on the Mediterranean at Christmas with a houseful of guests. They would read books aloud to each other and critique them. She said it was one of the happiest times of her life.

In that spirit, The Mount will extend its fall programming this year into the holiday season, with a landscape of mystery and fantasy, and doors into other worlds, journey and night.

On Thursdays through Sundays from Nov. 19 to Jan. 3, The Mount will open its grounds for NightWood, a light and sound show. The show requires advance purchase of timed-entry tickets.
Wissler said she has been thinking about having a “son et lumiere” at The Mount for years. She remembers walking through a stand of hemlocks that shimmered with pinpricks of light, like phosphorescence, at the Winterlights festival at Naumkeag, the historic estate in Stockbridge.
“It was atmospheric and impressive,” she said.

In late summer, she began looking for artists, and she met Chris Bocchiaro, a lighting designer for theater, opera, dance and public art in the Boston area. They connected in part through his work with the Trustees of Reservations at the Crane Estate in Agawam.

Bocchiaro has brought in theatrical scenic designer and architect Megan Kinneen and sound designer Greg Hanson to create a kind of self-guided traveling theater experience throughout The Mount’s gardens and grounds.


Light, darkness and mystery
The route begins outside the stable at the top of the hill, where a popup cafe with bistro lights and heaters offers hot comfort food, hot cider and chili, and two fire pits to warm up. And it opens with the walk down the long road Edith Wharton would have ridden in her carriage on crisp nights.

“The woods are a journey, a passage, a mystery,” Wissler said.
In the walk to the house, a heartbeat is palpable.

Hanson, the sound designer, wanted to create something original for each sequence, Bocchiaro said. He draws on defined melodies in some moments and pared-down sounds in others, using bells, percussion or a solo cello.

The music is all original composition, and Hanson is creating almost all of the sound himself, with his own instruments and his own voice, solo or in a choir -- not for lyrics but for timbre.

Bocchiaro said he hopes to inspire visitors’ imaginations. The pauses on this journey are not familiar holiday scenes and carols. But they call to the emotions people associate with the holidays, and to mystery. In the winter holidays, people spend time outdoors, around candles and firelight, thinking about life and possibility.

Walking here, Bocchiaro realized how deeply he could see between the trees. The understory is open, with fern and rock but not dense undergrowth. So he has set playful lights illuminating the night woods.

And torches will light the path all the way, burning real flame.
“Think medieval,” Wissler said.
The staff will fill the lights every night, like Victorian lamplighters. They also will be easily at hand throughout the walk.

“You’ll never be more than 25 to 50 yards from someone,” Wissler said.


Distinct landscapes and sounds
In the walled dooryard at the front of the house, the light will pool more brightly.
“The forecourt is warmth and community and individuality all as one,” she said.
Kinneen has designed sculptural elements in three areas of the property, inspired by the natural environments. In front of the house, a massive table will glow in the light of hundreds of candles, Bocchiaro said. People will come from the open woods into an enclosed area filled with joy.
Around the corner of the house, Wissler said Bocchiaro has reimagined the flower garden as an ice garden, playing on crystal structures, the geometry of snowflakes, and shades of purple and blue.

The lime walk invokes the sounds of wind.
“The lights and sounds synchronize to give the sense of the wind carrying us along a long path,” Bocchiaro said. “Each area has its own feel.”

The lime walk is its own place, Wissler said, with walls of light, half dark, moving into the walled Italian garden. And the Italian garden opens into the wonder of life existing when all seems dead and dormant for the winter, with dead leaves and bare branches.

Each space creates an arc, moving within a theme. Traditionally, a show like this at a historic house might light up a landmark and tell the story of the place, Bocchiaro said. Here, they wanted to create a fluid pageant through the whole property.

“The lighting is a fully moving element in time,” he said. “So the music and soundscapes evolve, and the lights follow. A single computerized system drives the lighting and the sound, and that’s all programmed moment by moment.”

The lights are not colored glass holiday bulbs, Wissler explained, but flexible, like theater lights, so that they can change in hue or turn on and off to move the light across space.
Bocchiaro often works in opera houses, but he has worked with outdoor shows before.
“There’s a theatrical form called promenade theater where the audience moves,” he said, explaining that this gives viewers a new vantage point without changing the stage scenery.
“This show is inspired by that idea -- put the audience into the set,” he said.

Bocchiaro said the beautiful environment at The Mount propels the show. He finds a kind of magic in the freedom to walk outside at night, and in firelight.

“There’s something very ancient, celebratory and also solemn to have that kind of processional,” he said. “Torches light the way throughout the event, and they create that bubble of light which heightens the mystery of what’s out there in the dark.”

The path curves naturally to reveal the woods and gardens, and he sees dramatic intention there on Edith Wharton’s part.

“The layout of The Mount reveals itself slowly and encourages you to discover more and more as you venture on,” he said. “It lends itself to the experience we’re creating, as people are encouraged to explore along a fixed path and experience each area and allow their own imagination to run wild. It’s contemplative, meditative, joyful.”


NightWood is open from Thursdays through Sundays, Nov. 19 to Jan. 3, at The Mount, at 2 Plunkett St. in Lenox. (The property will be closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.) Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, masks are required, and admission will be limited and timed. Tickets ($20 for adults, $10 for children 6-18, free for 5 and under) must be purchased in advance. For more information or to reserve tickets, visit www.edithwharton.org or call (413) 551-5100.