The Landmarks Orchestra opened its 18th season at the Esplanade under Wednesday’s perfect celestial sphere, as Christopher Wilkins conducted a pleasing program that linked sentiment, sound and summer. An upbeat multigenerational audience sat, meandered and scampered, and the conducting intern, Richard Choe, entertained droves of children at a podium station, complete with scores and batons. This inaugural concert featured an inspiring tripartite collaboration among Landmarks Orchestra, Zumix of East Boston and the Paulina Voices of the St. Paul’s Girls’ School of London, which has long cultivated a widely-admired music program―indeed, featured composer Gustav Holst resided there for 30 years.
Landmarks once again accomplished its mission of “Breaking Down Barriers” to make music accessible to all, even the hearing impaired. Actor-interpreters Adrianna Neefus and Christopher Robinson ably enhanced the evening with American sign language (ASL), and not just for those with hearing challenges―ASL conveys mood, thought, phrasing and nuance that can be understood by all present. Most deaf persons hear some portion of a concert and at least feel vibrations; ASL interpreters spend time studying scores and planning detailed delivery. And they are beautiful to watch.
The first of Elgar’s five Pomp and Circumstance marches, the only portion not directly linked to flight and the heavens, has long been popular in the highest circles (it was Princess Diana’s favorite). The rendition seemed a bit loud and fuzzy, perhaps affected by that muter of Hatch Shell Concerts, Storrow Drive traffic. The winds were in tune, even if some entrances were harsh.
In a “Pops Extra Bonus,” a tradition that has marked Esplanade Concerts from the days of Arthur Fiedler, Leroy Anderson’s Summer Skies (1953) introduced the celestial theme with verve.
An orchestration of Debussy’s Clair de Lune by André Caplet, who conducted Boston Opera from 1901 to 1904 and was a good friend of the composer, celebrated the waxing moon. The dreamy music seemed muffled, though the mood of lunar reverie, emblematic of the original piano version, prevailed.
Australian Lyn Williams’ Festive Alleluiah, a sweet celebratory a capella composition, wafted forth from the recently restored Hatch Shell into the repaired Esplanade Oval’s thousands of ears, ably sung by the well-rehearsed Paulina Voices. Then the group sailed through Andy Beck’s haunting Something Told the Wild Geese for treble voices clearly and with nuance.
Having a composer-in-residence is central to Landmarks’ approach; in this case, Gonzalo Grau has guided four promising young Zumix composer-performers (Tayler Fernandez Núñez, Rehanna Fernandez Núñez , Jennifer Perez and Eleasah Whittaker) in creating, orchestrating and premiering the Holst-inspired multi-faceted Pegasus Promenade, which combines keyboard, poetry, unaccompanied treble voices, orchestra and percussion. The movements flow together and combine many styles in four energetic segments evocative of many eras. The romantic first, Aphrodite, combines bird-like and bell-like notes, and a quiet nightfall, followed by reverie. Next, Proteus, named for the primordial protector of the seas and rivers, sounded in confidence, ascending. The last two, Soteria and Hermes, build excitement, before closing with varied, Ghanaian-style drumming. Pegasus Promenade proved stunning, if uneven.
The Planets by Gustav Holst, who was in residence at the St. Paul’s Girls’ School for three decades, allowed attendees to experience what inspired the young composers of Pegasus Promenade. In this most popular of his works, Holst evoked all the planets known in 1916, excepting Earth and the then-unknown Pluto (Pluto has since been demoted anyway), though neither in orbital nor alphabetical orders. The orchestral suite opens with Mars, the Bringer of War—fitting, since Holst began the work on the threshold of World War I. Venus, the Bringer of Peace transitions to a soft and approachable interlude, yet never sounds that peaceful to me. The pleasing rendition never quite ascended to planetary heights. The other movements—Mercury (the Winged Messenger), Jupiter (the Bringer of Jollity), Saturn (the Bringer of Old Age), Uranus (the Magician) and Neptune (the Mystic)—convey mood rather than perceived mythology about any “planet.”
Of all these sections, Mars and Jupiter are most familiar and were rendered well. Uranus sounds a lot like Dukas’s the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, written in the 1890s, demonstrating how transgenerational inspiration takes place among composers. Indeed, Mars seems to have contributed to John Williams’s inspirational music for Star Wars. Finally, in Neptune, the last shimmering, wordless vocalizations, intoned by the Paulina Voices (as they did at the premiere), floated away into what passes for silence on the Esplanade.
In all, it was a highly successful evening, and, unlike at many Esplanade concerts, the crowd happily stayed until the very end.