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 Gifts” three 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.