IN: Reviews

Honeysucker, Landmarks, One City Choir


Vietnamese sculptor Tran Do’s ceramic representation of the late Charles Ansbacher was a feature of the Reconciliation Concert. (BMInt staff photo)

The Boston Landmarks Orchestra opened its season last night at the Hatch Shell with Boston’s estimable baritone Robert Honeysucker and an ad hoc 257-voice choir in an all-Copland Americana program based in large part on hymns, folk tunes, and spirituals. The best moment of the evening was the first. As the sun was setting dramatically over the Charles, Honeysucker intoned At the River with a voice as burnished as the golden orb. His elegiac and spacious evocation of “a river flowing to the throne of God” put this reviewer in mind of Psalm 150 which ends, “Let all who have breath praise the Lord.”

Nothing that followed rose to such drama, and the reasons were numerous. First of all, conductor Charles Wilkins’s programmatic choice of accessible Copland led to an unfortunate sameness. Indeed we heard Simple Giftsthree times. And most of the material was about simple tunes and even simpler harmonies, seldom rising above mezzoforte. In a noisy, distracting outdoor setting, quiet and reflective music needs to give way to loud and bombastic more of the time. The very large audience on the Esplanade oval was only sporadically enthusiastic.

Because of the relentless traffic on Storrow Drive, the average noise floor was a rather loud 65 decibels, and that was when no helicopters or motorcycles were raising their competing voices. The average volume of the orchestra was 75 decibels — yielding not much of a dynamic range; consequently the audience was not always aware of when the pieces began. The sound reinforcement system was no more than adequate. It gave no sense of localization of instruments or performers. Though it was certainly kind to Robert Honeysucker’s baritone, it made the large chorus sound as though played on an LP with a dirty needle.

After the two-minute performance of At the River, 20 minutes of talk ensued before Appalachian Spring (1944) began 35 minutes after the concert’s scheduled start. And then the audience needed to wait through another 20 minutes of Copland’s charming but thin and meandering introduction to get to the big tune, “’Tis the Gift to be Simple.” Wilkins led the great-sounding 47 players of the Landmarks Orchestra with subtlety, nuance and rhythmic wit, but that might not have been enough.

Two numbers from Billy the Kid (1938) followed intermission: “Prairie Night,” which unfortunately sounded too much like Appalachian Spring, and “Celebration Dance,” which showed the orchestra off to great effect with vivid flare. The major piece on the second half was Old American Songs arranged in 1950 and 1952. The One City Choir, unaccountably dressed in black and rather dimly lighted, nevertheless made a dramatic presence on the stage. Although drawn from “21 neighborhoods of Boston,” they showed no more diversity than the very homogenous audience. Prepared by Holly Krafka, the director of the New World Chorale, the singers appeared and sounded quite enthusiastic, but were dramatically overmatched by Honeysucker with whom they alternated in the seven songs of the set.

Honeysucker embodied the first song, “The Dodger,” with a bluesy reading that Wilkins and the orchestra accompanied to perfection. The choral entrance in the second song, “Long Time Ago,” provided the first satisfying chordal harmonies of the evening and was emotionally rendered. Honeysucker’s stentorian invocation in “Zion’s Walls” beginning “Come fathers and mothers, Come sisters and brothers, Come join us in singing the praises of Zion” should probably have ended the set. Instead the choir had the last words in “Ching-a-ring Chaw” which did little to efface memories of Marilyn Horne’s performances.

Then we were treated to a moving, unscripted moment. The recipient of the first Charles Ansbacher Music for All Award, Armand Diangienda, founder and conductor of the Orchestra Symphonique Kimbanguista in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was invited to conduct the BLO in an arrangement of “Simple Gifts.”  He was rewarded with the only standing ovation of the evening. See related interview here.

The closer was “The Promise of Living” from the opera The Tender Land (1954). Like the much longer Appalachian Spring, with which it book-ended the concert, it began with slow, tender pianissimo lyricism. The chorus entered after two minutes and gradually built to a great crescendo (85 db in this case) on the word, “loving.” Then the piece just petered out for the last two minutes, in this case giving the audience reason to begin filing out.

See related article here.  See related interview here.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer.


8 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. You call yourself musical intelligence. Your review of the Landmark Boston Sings performance was just plain stupid. You complained about decibels in an outdoor setting with crying babies and ambulances. Didn’t you know this in advance? Everyone else did! You compare members drawn from “community choruses from Greater Boston” with the veteran Boston baritone Robert Honeysucker. Didn’t you know in advance that no comparison could ever be made? Everyone else did! You missed the whole point of this performance. There were about 10,000 people joyfully singing, playing and listening and you were the only one who didn’t get what was happening. I need to warn you!! It may happen next year. My advise to you! STAY HOME!!!

    Comment by sandra k — July 12, 2012 at 11:43 pm

  2. Thanks, S.K. for a chorister’s perspective.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — July 13, 2012 at 4:06 pm

  3. I too attended the Landmark Orchestra Concert Wednesday evening after noticing it on The Boston Musical Intelligencer. I must admit that I don’t go to outdoor concerts with high expectations though experiences at Ravinia, Millenium Park, Tanglewood, and Maverick have in general been quite satisfactory. Since the review and sandra k’s comment are quite at odds, I’ll offer my perspective.

    The Boston Musical Intelligencer generally dispenses “musical intelligence” and as such I didn’t find the review “just plain stupid.” The fact that BMInt sent a reviewer should mean that it regards Landmark as a professional orchestra. I didn’t read anything in the review that could negatively reflect upon the orchestra, the conductor, or fabulous Robert Honeysucker.

    The comment about noise competition and decibel levels should be of interest in future programming decisions, as the reviewer said. I was sitting in the first row and in front of a bank of loud speakers and during soft sections the competition from Storrow Drive and people around me talking was just too great, which brings me to another point.

    Whether there were “10,000 people joyfully singing, playing and listening,” is hard for me to gauge. From the stage, it may have looked like the “sardines” (as Suwanee Hunt described us) were listening but from my vantage point, people seemed more engaged in talking and drinking with their friends instead of actively listening to the musical offerings. I was frankly quite surprised by the fact that so few audience members could even manage to applaud after each selection except in the case of the standing ovation for Armand Diangienda. I don’t know whether to chalk that up to poor manners, boredom, dislike of the music, or something else.

    Perhaps Landmark will consider some of the BMInt constructive criticism and program more noise friendly music in the future. While BMInt’s review obviously pained chorister Sandra K., it was potentially more useful than the feel-good, fluff article by The Globe.

    Lastly (to Landmark), how about having concerts in other Boston neighborhoods where classical music is a rarity. The audience, orchestra, and chorus looked too much like me, meaning that the Beacon Hill, Back Bay, South End contingent, which seemed to be out in abundance, didn’t reflect the diversity of Boston, which I gather Landmark is courting. Sadly, the audience looked like the same classical music cheapskates who flood Jordan Hall for any free concert. I’d be very curious to know how many of the audience took the nine to one challenge grant.

    Comment by Beth Wilson — July 13, 2012 at 7:54 pm

  4. Mr. Eisenman, can you please refer to your own feature article on this event, which correctly calls the chorus the One CITY Choir?

    Comment by perry41 — July 13, 2012 at 9:28 pm

  5. Thanks for the correction and sorry for the error.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — July 13, 2012 at 11:24 pm

  6. I don’t know if the other Boston TV stations provided any coverage of this event, but WBZ-TV did to its credit. There was emphasis on the award for Mr. Diangienda so that they could then insert video from the “60 Minutes” episode featuring the Congolese orchestra. After that segment, Jonathan Elias praised the orchestra for attempting such a difficult piece, only he stopped there. The piece was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. I wonder if Mr. Elias RECOGNIZED the piece but purposely didn’t identify it, or was he making a generic comment about classical music.

    Comment by Laurence Glavin — July 14, 2012 at 3:34 pm

  7. I wasn’t at the concert, so I have no critical input to offer, but the first line of Simple Gifts is “Tis the gift to be simple.”

    Comment by jaylyn — July 15, 2012 at 5:25 pm

  8. duly noted and thanks- does go to show something about the sound system…

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — July 15, 2012 at 5:54 pm

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