in: News & Features

July 3, 2012

Out of 21 Neighborhoods: One City Choir

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We will truly hear America — and Boston — singing “their strong melodious songs” when The Boston Landmarks Orchestra opens its 2012 Landmarks Festival at the Hatch Shell on July 11th. Among the most inclusive of local institutions, the BLO has reached into all 21 Boston neighborhoods for the formation of the 200-voice “One City Choir,” which will make its debut entitled, Boston Sings. The BLO program of favorite works by Aaron Copland, includes choral selections from Old American Songs, The Tender Land with the beloved baritone Robert Honeysucker, as well as Appalachian Spring and Billy the Kid. The concert is free to all, as are all of BLO’s concerts, thanks to a number of philanthropies, especially the Free for All Concert Fund, whose $500,000 grant was recently announced.  Also noteworthy, The Charles Ansbacher Reconciliation Award will be given for the first time.

Charles Ansbacher (BLO photo)

BLO has never strayed from the goal of its late founder, Charles Ansbacher, to bring music to all people; this summer’s 15 concerts, running through the end of August, are being held at such non-traditional venues as Dorchester Park, Pinebank Promontory in Jamaica Plain, Blackstone Square in the South End, and the Boston Tea Party Ship and Museum. In repertoire as well, BLO tries to reach diverse audiences. The orchestra’s collaboration with Villa Victoria Center for the Arts, Fiesta sinfónica, a “merengue and mambo on an epic scale,” will be yet another example of how Ansbacher’s legacy is thriving.

That legacy is being advanced by Christopher Wilkins, now in his second year as Landmark’s conductor. A native Bostonian and graduate of Harvard College, Wilkins has appeared with many of the leading orchestras of the United States, including those of Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco. He has served as music director of the San Antonio Symphony and the Colorado Springs Symphony and is currently artistic adviser to the Opera Theatre of the Rockies in Colorado Springs.

BMInt recently posed some questions to him:

BMInt: Has it been difficult to follow Charles Ansbacher as BLO’s music director? Please tell us about how you are settling into your role as your second season begins.

Charles Wilkins: I think as personalities go, Charles and I are very different. I think in terms of personal goals and philosophies, we’re very similar. It’s important to add quickly that I’ve known Charles for many years and succeeded him once before. He was my predecessor at my very first music directorship at Colorado Springs. Charles had been music director there — that’s where he met Swanee Hunt [Ansbacher’s widow and a trustee of the Free For All Concert Fund] — and that’s where I met Charles. We stayed in touch ever since. Some of the traditions that he began in Colorado Springs, including free outdoor summer concerts, I continued during my tenure there. Charles’s way of going about things, what he believed in, the way that music can serve to bind together a community, all of those have been in my bloodstream since my very first professional work, and I owe a lot to Charles for teaching me about those things.

The opening concert is also dedicated in a way to Charles’s memory, because the Charles Ansbacher Reconciliation Award will be given for the first time. You know that Charles would go to Sarajevo and other war-torn areas and would conduct. When he conducted in Hanoi he was the first American to conduct in the former North Vietnam. Charles was very struck there with a man he met, Nguyen Ahn Tuan, founder of VietNamNet, the prestigious online newspaper in Vietnam, reaching an audience of six million viewers. Tuan was just as struck with Charles. Subsequently Tuan has put up the money to establish the award. See related interview here.

But of course one shouldn’t feel guilty about playing and conducting music for its own sake. The community outreach and so forth are all very fine, but I think that playing and hearing music in and of itself is sufficiently good.

It is, and a lot of that bringing people together happens naturally if the music-making is enjoyable, because it is a communal experience, especially in orchestra, when you begin with such a large group in the beginning. I always think that if the people on stage are having fun, the people in the audience will have fun. That’s what makes it appealing and attractive. That’s half the equation. In terms of philosophy, the other half of the equation for the Landmarks addresses the reality that you can play outdoors in a bucolic setting, charge no money, make it accessible transportation-wise and disability-wise in terms of appealing repertoire, but that still doesn’t mean that they’re going to come. And if you find that your goals are also to be inclusive of as much as Boston as possible, including across economic, racial, and geographic divides, the other part of this is, how are you going to do that? My position is you have to go out there and get them; you can’t just sit back and wait for them to come because they may never do so. And so a fair amount of what we’re doing this summer — and you can see on the website — is collaborative music-making, music-making in the neighborhood and working across genres. We’re not going nuts with that last idea, but we have a really exciting partnership with Villa Victoria at IBA in the South End, and we’re doing some very interesting repertoire where we step into their world and they step into ours. Their world is the world of Salsa, Latin Caribbean popular and dance music. So we’re doing some work that would feel more in a way like their world and they’re really stepping into our world as well. … We will undoubtedly bring some people from the South End and beyond who have never attended a concert at the Hatch Shell, and likewise we will bring our orchestra and some of our fans into Blackstone Square in the South End to have symphonic street party and that will be fun in a new way for us.

But you’re still predominantly presenting standard repertoire, are you not?

Yes we are. Charles believed in that — he didn’t want to become a pops orchestra — and if you look at our programming, the overwhelming majority is standard classical repertoire from the standard canon. But we’re mixing things up and pushing against some of those boundaries, looking for what that word means in the 21st century as opposed to in the 20th.

Charles Wilkins (file photo)

Is that pushing a boundary for you? Were you a Salsa guy before you were engaged with Fiesta Sinfónica?

I was definitely not a Salsa guy, so there’s a lot of personal and musical growth for me in this as there is for the majority of our musicians. And that’s one of the cool things too, that the organizations get stretched in the best possible ways. We get stretched artistically and develop new listening skills. We did a little bit of this. One of the works we’ve commissioned that we’re going to play in the South End was on the program at our Sanders Theater gala on opening night in June. It was evident that most of our musicians were enjoying this kind of challenging new experience, and I think it’s pretty cool.

Did your Sanders gala raise some of the money for making all of these other concerts free? This must be part of your job too.

The Sanders gala did very well economically. The concert there was nominally free, although a contribution could be made, and then we had a fundraising dinner in Annenberg Hall and had an auction — it all helped. It’s an interesting model to have zero box office revenue, but that is our model. In an interesting way, it means we have to pay attention to the public even more than one normally would. In a sense we really have to show that we’re making a difference in Boston to Bostonians. If six people show up to concert that’s not making much of a difference. It’s not that we don’t care about the popularity of what we do or we don’t count heads when we come. All of that is important; it’s just important in a different way. Since Charles moved Landmarks to the Hatch Shell our audiences have grown dramatically, and this last summer it was not uncommon to see 10,000 people on the oval. So that’s neat, and those are really good numbers and show that people are really enjoying the experience.

Is conducting an amplified outdoor concert very different for a conductor than conducting one in a great hall, and do you have any say in the amplified mix the way you would in a recording session?

The conducting is pretty much the same act. There is some awareness, particularly in the piano and pianissimo, that there are limits to the subtlety of shading that we can put into the microphone as a motorcycle goes by on Storrow Drive. That’s probably the main thing. On the quiet side of the music we’re all aware that there’s a minimal threshold. Other than that, we play like an orchestra. We don’t really hear the amplified sound; on stage, we hear the acoustic sound. But interestingly, I have worked for many years with a wonderful company called MJ audio and this year it is working with Steve Colby, who has been for many, many years the chief sound engineer for the Boston Pops and Symphony. So he knows that venue, equipment, and repertoire inside and out. We’ve got the ideal sound engineer in Boston now working with us, and it’s certainly our goal to present as fine an audio experience as we can. Having said that, there are things that could be done over time to the Hatch Shell and to the equipment there and to the layout that would help the sound even further. With the new Esplanade  2020 master plan as a guide, it’s a nice opportunity to have those discussions with other organizations that use that space.

Pritzker Pavillion (Capture My Chicago image)

Well, I would compare it to Millennium Park in Chicago, where the Gehry band shell is. That’s an altogether different experience, since they have overhead speakers that give a sense of surround and actually a sense of concert-hall ambience. And I think there are two advantages to that — one, for the audience, it feels more like being in a concert and two, it doesn’t have to be so loud to reach the back row that it’s annoying for the neighbors, though clearly there are no neighbors in Chicago.

It’s an outstanding experience musically there and that’s state of the art, a gold standard for what we’re talking about. I don’t know that on the oval, recreating a concert hall experience is practical. There are things that could push the sound in that direction that would be wonderful to have. It’s an iconic facility. You don’t want to do anything to destroy the look and ambience, but there are a lot of things that could improve the technology. There are a lot of opportunities for improving the experience, and happily a lot of people determined to make that happen.

Have you gotten to know the BLO players individually, and is that important in establishing a professional rapport?

Well, there are a few musicians in Mark’s orchestra and in the Boston Freelance that I go way back with—people I went to Tanglewood with and played in Youth Orchestra with in woodwind quintets, and things like that. That’s interesting, because they know me as an oboe player, but not so much as a conductor until now. Also, we have a year of concerts under our belt and are entering our second season together, so I’m getting to know people better.

How consistent is the personnel makeup of the orchestra?

It’s fairly consistent. We don’t have firm commitments as in: “You have a contract as our second clarinet player and that’s your chair.” But we have our “Landmarks pool”; it’s fairly consistent but certainly not perfectly consistent. All of our musicians are piecing together work from all kinds of sources in the New England area, so we don’t have access to all of them every week either.

So some weeks it might be some of the same personnel as the Esplanade Orchestra of the BSO?

Right, there are lots of Esplanade Orchestra folks, a lot of Boston Ballet Orchestra and opera folks, there’s a very large overlap with that pool.

So you’re not really going to know every member of the orchestra, nor is that really important.

That’s right. I think the chemistry and relationships are important, but as soon as you step on the podium and the players become an orchestra, it just is a different world, and that relationship unfolds in such a different way. For me, it’s about drawing on their highest and best skills in whatever way I know how. And of course, you don’t really want to relate to them as individuals; the whole goal is unity.

So treat the orchestra as the individual?

The whole goal of an orchestra is in a way “anti individual,” to find a unified approach to everything. So it ends up being very different, and certainly a guest conductor who doesn’t even know English can step on the podium not knowing anybody and create magic.

Baritone Robert Honeysucker (file photo)

Let’s finish by your telling me about the One City Chorus and how you put 200 people together and how much time you’ve spent with them and how exciting that’s going to sound.

Part of this idea was to flesh out the idea of: “Ok, you lower the barriers, but how do you involve people and assure that they’ll come?” And we borrowed that phrase from Hubie Jones, who founded the Boston Children’s Chorus and many other things; he said at one point that “we strive to be one city through arts and culture.” The arts are a wonderful way to put everyone on the same platform. We all become equal through these shared experiences. I took that idea that we could be “one city” and thought that it would be a wonderful way to open the season, signaling those points, to put together a chorus that would be made up of people from all over the city and the environs. And the goal has been that the chorus would have a representative from all 21 neighborhoods, but whether we actually get there or not is not the point so much as that’s what we want and we want to make it as warm and welcoming an environment as possible for people.

Are these all people who are in choruses already?

We’ve tried to allow people to self-select. We say that “this is open to people who already sing in choruses or have a singing background.” But inclusion is the point of emphasis here. It’s not auditioned, and it’s not invitation only — you can self appoint.

Have you heard it yet?

No. We have the whole list, we know where everybody comes from, and we’re going to assemble on the WGBH studios on Sunday night the week of the show. They’re singing Three American Songs by Copland, and his “Promise of Living” from The Tender Lands. The other old American songs are being sung by Robert Honeysucker.  Our chorus also represents that spirit of coming together — that what we share is more important than what divides us.

I hope it comes together musically as well as socially.

I hope so, too [laughs]. We have conductor Holly MacEwen Krafka, who’s very adept at these things, and many of her New World Chorale members will be in the One City Choir. That’s really solid glue.

See related review here.

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