in: Reviews

September 17, 2015

BLMO’s Fay Chandler Salute

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Boston Landmarks Orchestra last Tuesday presented a Landmarks Free-For-All concert, “Remembering Fay Chandler”, culminating the six-day family festival “Finding Fay,” in honor of the well-known and much-loved local philanthropist and artist who died last March. The event opened with a bang, ended with cheers and a huge ovation, with oodles sandwiched in between.

BLMO Music Director Christopher Wilkins, who has presence on the podium, opened with Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. Who knew that the work has such a rhythmic pulse and flow around all that silence, to shepherd all that brass? I did not, until this performance. Watching Wilkins conduct while listening to the powerful brass and timpani made the performance stately but sumptuous and the work soaring and at the same time grounded.

After Copland, Appy Chandler, elder son of Chandler and BLMO president, took the stage to address this near full house of family and friends, Landmarks loyalists, and music-lovers. His introduction was just right for all parts of the house: warm, welcoming, with the grace and good humor Fay Chandler would have wanted. And with just the right amount of background, explanation of the musical program, and short reminiscences of mum as well as mention of father Al, born on the same day, the September 15 day of this concert. Appy also introduced the ever-large contingent of family members from around the country and across the Atlantic present at any Fay-related event.

The family made the concert possible. Indeed, Wilkins later would add that the orchestra as it exists now would not be here if not for Chandler. Also thanks to her, I might add, with the depth and reach of her generosity, the same can be said about many arts and community organizations, not least among them the Art Connection, with its own special reach across Boston and now the country.

The setting? Not the usual landmark. As refreshing as the Hatch Shell is, it was a treat to listen to this orchestra at Sanders Theater instead, to hear each section (and so many individuals) shine, and the full ensemble come together with such clear, projected sound.

I had no idea I would be reviewing until a few hours after the fact. No notes or homework, no learning that there are five different suites with the same name by Joan Tower; I was there to enjoy the music and remember Chandler. The last part is easy: she had a way of embedding in memory, conjuring recollection, sparking no small amount of off-the-charts imagination.

And so enjoy the music we did. As did the players and conductor. Pretty much from the startling opening timpani to the final frolicking (nearly embarrassingly for the more reserved of us) Beatles medley encore. The music ranged from Copland to today, not the longest journey but an eclectic one that prompted Wilkins to point out that “If the program were any more eclectic, it would have to be longer.” It was a proper length, despite a monster intermission needed for mingling and conversation.

Chandler loved brass, especially trumpet, but, as Appy relayed, she especially liked a lyrical tune. Vaughn Williams’s Fantasia on ‘Greensleeves’ traded out brass for strings and a few winds. Lyrical it was, with luscious, velvety flute from Lisa Hennessy on top of a cushy bed of strings.

A work for the occasion by Boston composer Larry Bell followed: Remembering Fay, for solo trumpet, harp, and strings, rewritten from a larger dedicated piece of several years back called Four Lyrics for Trumpet and Piano. Think more velvet, and retro-modern / modern-retro film noir music, super-lush and downright foggy with trumpet mute. Trumpeter Dana Oakes wowed us without wowing at all. Not a showy note, just gorgeous phrases and sound. Appropriately warm and lengthy applause for both him and the composer.

Wilkins introduced the big work on the program, Duke Ellington’s The River, a suite of seven water-informed movements, noting it was composed to accompany a ballet by Alvin Ailey (premiered in 1970) and that it’s one of his favorites. Going out on a small limb here, I might ask if this work is bit of a nod to Beethoven’s Sixth, program music with a nature bent but with a more descriptive program, by movement: Spring, Meander, Giggling Rapids, Lake, Vortex, Falls, Twin Cities. Big and bold, the work overflows with ideas and colors, showing off every instrument and group in the orchestra. Throughout, Wilkins introduced a variety of dance moves to help get the orchestra into different rhythms, including a slalom, knees bent, that suggests he might be a skier. Loved that perfectly timed maraca playing (which seems simple but isn’t), a jazzy on/off switch between sections to establish mood and structure. Kudos to the percussionists and timpanist throughout the night.

Sometimes in this Ellington suite the playing almost went over the top, in this hall (well, it did go over the falls, with big clues from the piano—in this case digital keyboard—and harp, I believe); but in the end, all was contained. It was the most demanding work on the program, with many of the movements ending in a huge way. It sparkled, had depth, and we were awash in the sound.

Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, a terrific short piece by Joan Tower, launched the program after intermission. The breathtaking (dark then instantly bright) whirlwind focused attention on the timpanist, who did a superb imitations of both  the Tasmanian Devil and Stretch from Fantastic Four, his arms spinning across the timpani (plural), extending in a blur. His sound was altogether clear.

Gershwin’s Girl Crazy Overture settled everything into a more relaxed state right away. But then a bit of light drama: the vocal soloist for a Calypso Medley, arranged by Curtis McKonly, had yet to arrive. We’d hear murmurings from the stage; Stan Strickland was in a different time zone, apparently: the jazz time zone. Surely the Landmarks event would start late, Strickland apparently thought (so Wilkins told us), so he would have ample time to island-hop between his gig at the Regattabar and Sanders. Strickland did arrive a few minutes late, but only a few, after one piece from a set of pieces labeled Landmarks of Swing. After a little teasing from Wilkins, Strickland charmed with his singing, his flute playing, and his improvised flute singing, throughout Man Smart (Woman Smarter), Island in the Sun, Jamaica Farewell, and Banana Boat Song. Orchestra slid into accompanying mode. Chandler loved this music too, as well as the big band presentation soon to come, a mix of arrangements by Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, and Artie Shaw.

Richard Couture on solo trombone made us long for a lounge and a drink with his fabulously slurry rendition of I’m Getting Sentimental Over You (Dorsey arrangement of composition by George Bassman), and Ian Greitzer, solo clarinet, soared and swelled in Begin the Beguine (Shaw, Porter) and Moonlight Serenade (Miller, Miller).

Fay Chandler (Art Connection photo)

Fay Chandler (Art Connection photo)

The program ended with the big orchestral medley of Beatles tunes including Lady Madonna and Let it Be, but I’d like to change the order of events slightly. Chandler wouldn’t mind. Before the encores, Appy took stage one final time to introduce music that his mother probably didn’t know but would have liked, music from Lonesome Dove, by Basil Poledouris. He also fessed up to a childhood fascination with the Old West and cowboys, of which mom approved. Of course! The music brought more brass fanfare, expansive leaps, and woody, windy strings stretched all across the prairie. Really good stuff, a suite of sorts.

Now, Appy started this, but while listening I couldn’t help picturing Chandler riding in on a horse, across the stage, wide-brimmed hat and all. Inevitable Lonesome Dove saloon music. I saw Fay walking into the saloon, dusting off her chaps, ordering her scotch: “Three rocks. … You don’t have rocks?” Bartender shakes her head (it’s the progressive West, though not icewise), “No. No rocks.” Fay Chandler frowns. Then she has a plan. She rebuilds the saloon, twice as big, 10 times as nice—with a newfangled ice machine. That Fay!

Jim McDonald has masters degrees in arts administration and piano performance from the University of Iowa, where he studied with John Simms. He has presented chamber music for 25 years.

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