The Boston Landmarks Orchestra’s “At the River” concert Wednesday night at the DCR Hatch Shell on the Esplanade presented vivid depictions of the Danube, the Vltava, and the Rhine as well as “the river of life” in a program of Strauss, Smetana, Ellington, and Schumann. Symbolism and orchestral difficulties aside, the program’s sheer musical joys highlighted the beauty and necessity of natural resources as well as the arts.
The orchestra’s annual “green concert” honored the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act in both artistic content as well as clean-water advocacy booths lining the Hatch Shell. Combined with clear skies and a mild breeze, the event brought out a large crowd (estimated at roughly 10,000 by BLO leadership) to enjoy the orchestra and the evening. The BLO’s “Maestro Zone” even allowed attendees of all ages to conduct along with the music at the side of the stage, while several young moppets took to impromptu dancing in front.
On the Beautiful Blue Danube, a.k.a. The Blue Danube, made an ideal opener. Strauss’s rhythmic, tuneful warhorse has been a crowd-pleaser since he first adapted it from his choral version for a waltz-crazed continent in 1867. Far from any ballrooms or empires, conductor Christopher Wilkins’s lilting direction kept both old and young swaying in their seats, and at times some deliciously reedy woodwinds conjured the sound of an accordion on lamp-lit European cobblestones.
Traveling miles and centuries ahead, Wilkins described the journey Smetana composed for the Vltava river of his Czech homeland, the “Moldau” from his collection of tone poems Má Vlast (My Country), before cueing the glistening harp water drops, blending of streams between orchestral parts and zesty peasant wedding. Despite some awkward transitions (such as slightly pungent winds segueing into the strings’ otherwise glowing depiction of moonlight, or brass and percussion turning Smetana’s rapids into soup) this piece was the evening’s standout in terms of sheer lush beauty. Wilkins maintained a modest clip throughout, showing off melodies and colors without simply milking phrases, reminding that even the most serene stream still moves.
Oddly, that sense of warmth and subtle propulsion was absent for several parts of Duke Ellington’s upbeat, jazz-infused The River, a depiction of life’s journey written for Alvin Ailey and the American Ballet Theater. The BLO’s rhythm was sticky rather than swinging for the first two movements, with an especially leaden drum set in “Giggling Rapids.” Ellington’s close harmonies also revealed issues with intonation (just as likely due to playing outdoors). Things improved by the third movement, with the strings’ melancholy tone and the succeeding samba feel (trombones, cellos, and double basses prominent) transcending outdoor acoustics for a hypnotically dark groove. The trickily syncopated fourth movement sounded timid, yet the fifth and final movement, “Twin Cities,” worked a metrical yet organic shuffle and solemn, bluesy, gospel chorale up to a magnificent finale.
After a good-natured chorus of “Happy Birthday” for BLO Executive Director Harron Ellenson that added to the carefree atmosphere, Wilkins introduced Schumann’s Symphony No. 3, “Rhenish,” with reference to the “curse” of having to compose in Beethoven’s shadow, a curse suffered by German composers of the 19th century. Both Beethoven and Schumann’s third symphonies (with Schumann’s numbering based on publication date rather than chronology) are in the same key and open with heroic themes. Unfortunately the BLO’s first movement of Schumann’s work lacked energy, with a sluggish tempo and unshapely division between parts creating a ponderous, rather than noble, opening.
Wilkins’s direction drew further parallels between Schumann and Beethoven, and by extension Mozart and Haydn, with a balanced, restrained touch, marked at times by classical mirth, such as in the second movement’s playful imitations. He added a freer, more rhapsodic quality to the lyrical third movement, while the fourth movement was enhanced by rich, gravelly textures, especially with trombones joining the symphony for the first time. Scholars debate the relationship between this movement and Schumann’s supposed visit to the Cologne cathedral. That’s a small footnote to the music: the sense of architecture Wilkins described in his introduction was felt in the scaling, ascendant feel of each section, with lucid contrapuntal figures building upon one another.
A triumphant fifth movement seemed to compensate for the initial deficit of heroism. Wind and horn accents on the violins added to a tight, balanced, and utterly confident conclusion. Schumann composed this work after a rejuvenating and inspiring trip to the Rhineland with his wife Clara (where he also wrote his Cello Concerto in A minor, op. 29). Among other sounds and sights of that visit, it’s possible to detect the Rhine rippling through the middle movement, but like the rest of this program, the bottom line is the music, not the imagery. BLO’s encore of a strutting “Hornpipe” from Handel’s Water Music only reinforced the idea of sounding great, with or without “sounding like…”
Andrew J. Sammut also writes for Early Music America and All About Jazz and blogs on a variety of music on his blog, Aesthetic, Not Anesthetic. He also plays clarinet and lives in Cambridge.