in: Reviews

June 11, 2012

Rivers Flow Nicely for Landmarks, BCC

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Boston Landmarks Orchestra and Boston Children’s Chorus (BCC) are special members of the rich panoply of our city’s classical music scene. Each has placed particular emphasis on reaching across the ordinary boundaries of the classical genre into jazz, folk, popular, and world music, to name a few. The resulting fusions ideally become more than the sum of their parts. On Saturday, June 9, the two organizations combined at Sanders Theatre, adding a contingent of musicians from throughout Latin America as well.

Three of Aaron Copland’s Old American Songs opened the program. The pure, transparent singing of the BCC was perfectly fitted to At the RiverZion’s Walls had enthusiasm, vitality, and well-disciplined dynamics. I Bought Me a Cat was perhaps a shade too earnest with its proper Anglican diction, but the young singers — and audience — had fun with the various animal sounds. The two conductors worked smoothly together, Michele Adams with the chorus and Christopher Wilkins with the orchestra, ensuring a hand-in-glove bond between the two ensembles.

We then heard some remarks from Wilkins about the metaphorical significance of the program’s theme of rivers, i.e., the various types of music as streams that combine into a powerful whole. Additionally, Ambassador Swanee Hunt paid tribute to that exemplary citizen of Boston, Hubie Jones, dean emeritus of the Boston University School of Social Work and founder/president of the BCC. Both Hunt and Jones remembered the late founder of the Boston Landmarks Orchestra, Charles Ansbacher, whose goal it was to give underserved communities access to great music.

The BCC displayed further skills in Pata Pa’ca, for chorus and piano, by Venezuelan composer Alberto Grau (b. 1938). This engaging piece features solo vocalises, a sung (later chanted) two-word incantation, a brief aleatoric section, and more conventional choral writing though in a quasi-jazz idiom. Frequently, there are independent rhythmic figures occurring simultaneously, and crisp ensemble allowed these to come through clearly. The chorus, conductor Michele Adams, and pianist Julia Carey all did commendable work. My one gripe is that no translation or synopsis of the Spanish text was given; this is not exactly “giving access” to those who know little or no Spanish.

Gonzalo Grau (b. 1972), son of Alberto, spoke about his work Viaje (Voyage), of which we heard an extended excerpt. (The full work will be premiered by the same performers at the Esplanade’s Hatch Shell on July 18.) The composition, which makes use of a number of Latin musical styles from Cuba, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico, is scored for orchestra supplemented by a Latin music ensemble — Alex Y Amigos, i.e., Alex Alvear of the South End’s Villa Victoria Center for the Arts and eight fellow instrumentalists/vocalists. It was stimulating to hear conventional orchestrations juxtaposed with decidedly alternative ones, e.g., all strings playing pizzicati so sharply accented that they become percussion in their own right, supporting extended melody in the upper winds.  Only once did the orchestration result in imbalance; when the orchestra’s brass section stood up to play, the whole orchestra could be seen playing but only brass and percussion were audible. Alvear and his fellow vocalists had varied vocal roles to play: ritualistic intoning (influenced by Santería, the Caribbean mixture of Roman Catholicism and native African religion), salsa-style singing, and spoken narration. Once again, non-Spanish speakers were left to wonder what was being spoken or sung of. Still, this is a compelling work by a composer who skillfully integrates traditional tropes with his original ideas. I hope Boston Landmarks Orchestra will consider giving Yanqui’s an English synopsis when they premiere the full work next month. It deserves the broadest possible audience.

From 21st-century Latin America we made the huge leap back to 18th-century Austria for the first movement of Franz Joseph Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante, Hob. 1:105. The four soloists were principals from Boston Landmarks Orchestra: concertmistress Christine Vitale, oboist Andrew Price, bassoonist Donald Bravo, and cellist Jolene Kessler. Though the balance rather favored the violin and oboe (Kessler got submerged once or twice), Wilkins drew effervescent and witty playing from the quartet and orchestra alike. A real rarity was the cadenza for all four soloists who had the disciplined but flexible ensemble of experienced chamber players. Papa Haydn almost seemed to have invented the augmented sixth chord here, obsessively and amusingly alternating it with its resolution any number of times, and the foursome enjoyed the joke without underlining it.

Resuming the program’s river theme, we came to “Vltava” (The Moldau), the second of six movements comprising  Vlast (My Homeland) by 19th-century Czech composer Bedřich Smetana. This is the perfect musical description of Wilkins’s earlier remarks; it begins with a single line (one rivulet), soon joined by another, then another, and so on until we reach the noble, heartfelt main theme of the storied river, Bohemia’s equivalent of our Mississippi. Each episode — a scene along the Moldau — was vividly characterized by Wilkins and the orchestra: excited hunting calls from the brass, a jaunty wedding dance, the exquisitely delicate moonlight scene, and the heart-pounding St. John’s Rapids. The triumphant major-key version of the main theme was thrilling, culminating in Smetana’s self-quotation of his first movement (Vysehrad) as the Moldau flows by the High Castle (not cathedral, pace Mr. Wilkins), the symbol of Czech national pride. In Prague I was once fortunate enough to have a boat ride on this part of the river, and this wonderful performance made me relive it.

The concert concluded with legendary River Rhine as described by Robert Schumann. The program leaflet here was in dire need of some proofreading. Schumann was certainly not born the same year as Haydn (1732), and neither died in 1791 (imagine Austro-German music losing Mozart, Haydn, and Schumann all in the same year!). Wilkins and the orchestra gave us the final two movements of Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 in E Flat, Op. 97, “Rhenish.” Possibly inspired by the great cathedral of Cologne, the third movement (Feierlich, or “solemn”) was given considerable solemnity and majesty by the performers. In particular the grand theme for brass choir, handsomely played, anticipated Wagner’s evocation of Valhalla, the palatial residence of the gods overlooking the Rhine. The final movement (Lebhaft, or “lively”) was an ebullient contrast to the previous. Though played throughout with high spirits, its balance and clarity never suffered. The still faster coda made a rousing conclusion.

This program was a sampling of those that the Boston Landmarks Orchestra will be playing at the Hatch Shell on Wednesday evenings through July and August, featuring a wide range of music from Haydn to Shostakovich, Beethoven to Duke Ellington, and premieres by Grau and del Aguila. I hope a broadly diverse audience will come to these free concerts and realize the dream of Charles Ansbacher and Hubie Jones.

Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach, and choir member at Trinity Church, Copley Square and in the Back Bay Chorale.

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