Can readers credit that this reviewer had never heard a Boston Landmarks Orchestra concert before the one at the Hatch Shell Wednesday? I’m kicking myself for not having gone sooner. Polished musicianship, brilliant programming, plus extras like video images and, oh, perfect weather enhanced the evening.
“Pictures at an Exhibition” was the theme, so of course the Mussorgsky/Ravel was featured, but the other works also focused on visual art. Collaborations with other area organizations being part of the Landmarks Orchestra’s ongoing success, two art museums were involved in this concert: The Norman Rockwell Museum (of Stockbridge) and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
Rockwell Reflections, a 2007 work by Stella Sung commissioned by the Rockwell Museum for a successful travelling show, opened the program. Each of its five movements evokes a different Rockwell work. In videos crafted by students working with Sung, the images appeared on the large screen above the performers. “Artist facing Blank Canvas (The Deadline),” was spritely and energetic, with a soaring, inviting theme. “Outward Bound (The Stay-at-homes)” started slowly and with restraint and gradually expanded with majestic sonorities; the image started with just a cloud-filled sky, but slowly moved out to reveal an older man and a boy watching sailboats go out to sea. After a shanty-like passage, the majestic sounds return tinged with percussion, and as the music faded, we could imagine the boats disappearing on the horizon. “Scherzo – Checkers” featured a small group of circus performers, backstage, puzzling over a checker game, while the circus is in full swing, as we hear from the riotously playful music. The panoply of percussion instruments employed are introduced in this preview video; some of Sung’s music can be heard as well. I was floored by the next movement, “Murder in Mississippi (Southern Justice).” Illustrating the 1964 murder of three young civil rights workers by the KKK, this journeyed far from the jovial Norman Rockwell I thought I knew. Sung began with eerie string harmonies over a hushed drumbeat. Again, the screened image only gradually revealed itself, starting with a dark corner and moving to the three figures, one dead, one dying in the arms of his standing colleague, the next to be attacked; the assailants are seen only as shadows. A trumpet drew out a sorrowful, lamenting melody based on Negro Spiritual; ominous percussion outbursts came intermittently. The spine-chilling effect also served to underscore events of recent weeks, showing that issues of civil rights remain unresolved. Reflections concluded with “The Peace Corps (JFK’s Bold Legacy),” which offered a sense of resolution and much-needed hope; Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” was woven in, but not overbearingingly.
In my first opportunity to hear music by Stella Sung I was completely moved by her vivid creation. Afterwards Artistic Director Christopher Wilkins announced that the Landmarks Orchestra is joining with the New England Aquarium to commission Sung’s “Sounds of the Sea,” for next season. Definitely something to look forward to!
Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (as adeptly orchestrated by Ravel) sounded wonderful with the original Victor Hartman images projected at the same time. Zooming in on details of the images was quite effective. In the movements for which no images survive, we got to see the players in action up close. The musicianship of the orchestra was at a very high level. The Tuba solo (Takatsugu Hagiwara) in “Bydlo,” was evocative (are the rising fifths the bleating of the weary ox?) and the alto sax (Ryan Yuré) in “The Old Castle” was mournful and plaintive. And wasn’t “Gnomus” used as the music for some episode of the original Star Trek? The video mentioned above also shows the chime used for “The Great Gate of Kiev.” The chime just looks like a large metal sign-post, but it certainly makes a glorious sound in the rapturous Finale.
The second half honored Isabella Stewart Gardner. Peggy Fogelman, Director of the namesake museum hosted the tribute. The larger-than-life Mrs. Gardner continues to motivate creativity through her passions for art, music and friends. In honor of her love for Venice (her museum was modelled on the Venetian Palazzo Barbaro) we saw beautiful watercolors of gondolas, canals, and palaces painted in Venice by her friend John Singer Sargent, while we listened to Offenbach’s Barcarole. Were we getting a far better view of those paintings than we would in the museum? Later Ms. Fogelman raised that very issue, pointing out the current “Off The Wall” exhibit, in which 25 works are removed from their ordained places and are on view “up close and lit to best advantage” in the modern exhibit space, while the Palazzo undergoes some renovations.
Next followed a world premiere of work by Peggy Stuart Coolidge (1913-1981). I remember first hearing her name a few years ago, but I had never heard any of her music, so this was really exciting. A Bostonian, she composed several pieces for Arthur Fiedler and Boston Pops, but her Isabella, a musical portrait of Mrs. Gardner, had never before been performed. In his excellent notes Wilkins hypothesized that the work was not played because Fiedler passed away when Coolidge was writing it. Beginning with richly textured brass chords, and a sultry violin solo (Concertmaster Gregory Vitale) it moved to an energetic section and finished majestically. It was thoroughly delightful.
Charles Martin Loeffler’s Divertissement Espagnol for saxophone and orchestra followed. Fogelman pointed out the many close ties between Loeffler and Gardner (“She practically acted as his agent!”), including the portrait of Loeffler that Sargant painted and gave to her for her 63rd birthday. The romantic and atmospheric work bthis time brought Ryan Yuré (and his sax) to the front of the stage, where his languid vibrato brought a fine sumptuousness. The final section used syncopated dance rhythms for the splashy finale.
Manuel de Falla’s Spanish Dance No. 1 from La Vida Breve, fittingly paired with the stunning Sargent painting “El Jaleo,” concluded the evening. As Fogelman observed, the nearly life-sized work is both painting and performance, drawing us into the dance that is taking place. With its sparkle of percussion and castanets, the lower strings evoking guitars, the emphatic stomping of the middle section (conveyed by the low brass and bass drum), and then the frenzied accelerando of the conclusion, we experienced the entire dance in a thrilling multi-dimensional way.
The Hatch Shell offers a beautiful setting for a relaxed evening with some wonderful music, though it hardly provides an optimum experience for intensive listening, due both to ambient noise (six lanes of traffic not that far away) and a very easy-going concert decorum. If you want to read, text, knit, or even quietly chat while listening to music, then this is for you. The amplification gives a certain brittleness to the sound, and lower tones were sometimes overpowered by the middle range. I think this must be a factor of having no natural resonance in the open-air setting. It was fine to see small children enjoying the music, or even if not enjoying the music, enjoying the event. It’s important to have a concert-going experience like this that is neither formal nor “just” a pop music concert. The crowd was good natured. There were many families with children, a lot of couples (could be a “date night” thing), and groups sharing blankets, as well as an assortment of singles. I overheard someone say, “It’s as good as Tanglewood, but it’s free!” to which I added “and a lot closer.”
One completely unexpected plus is that dogs are welcome at the concert! That’s WAY better than Tanglewood! Truly something for the WHOLE family!!
Bring your own beach chair or mat, or folding plastic chairs can be rented for $5. Landmarks Orchestra events continue Wednesdays through the summer.