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Musical Americas: LO Casts Broadly


Janet Wu to co-host

This summer Boston Landmarks Orchestra moves from the Hatch Shell on the Esplanade to the (e)splendid confines of the Futura Studio in Roslindale to record and stream two small-ensemble concerts dedicated to reminding us of its social and aesthetic missions while also giving us license to tap our toes while watching on our phones, tablets, and computers.

Under the direction of music director Christopher Wilkins and co-executive directors Mary Deissler and Arthur Rishi, socially distanced and masked players will begin with Simple Gifts on July 15th at 7pm (1), while Dances and Delights follows on July 29th (2) at 7pm with Castle of our Skins. “While we will certainly miss the Esplanade, everyone will have a front row seat for these streamed concerts, and we won’t need to worry about the weather or the sound of passing motorcycles.”

FLE: Streaming a chamber music concert from an exclusive and inaccessible former Masonic Temple seems to distance you from the goals of embracing a large and varied audience. How will your internet broadcasts differentiate themselves from the content that’s already on the web, and how satisfying will they be to you and your colleagues? 

CW: It’s a great question. Normally we’re all about finding ways to include as much community as possible, with layers of collaboration and partnerships, kids from camps, working with other Boston institutions — the Gardner Museum, the Aquarium or Museum of Science — but none of that is possible now. Maybe down the road.

We can do some things that we don’t normally do, such as making video content that right now is the coin of the realm. Landmarks hasn’t developed a whole lot of video over the years, so that will be good to have. And people will also have a look at us in a more intimate way than usual. They’ll get to see the musicmaking in lots of detail, something that isn’t possible on the Esplanade because of its enormous size.

So all that is different. At the same time, our programs are still intended to further our mission of inclusiveness and diversity. We’ve been at that for a long time, seeking to give voice to community and to people from all backgrounds. This coming Wednesday, as noted, we’re streaming live from Futura Studio; on the previous night, we’re filming a program to be released two weeks later, on July 29th.

Presumably it’s the economics of studio utilization that prompt you to do one recorded and one live.

Primarily, yes. We’ve rented the facility, video and audio equipment, and hired a first-rate team to film these performances. So there’s an incentive to maximize that investment. But also, in being as precautionary as we can be about health and safety, we need to limit the number of people who are active in the space. The less time we spend coming in and out of the room together, the better.

Are your video people going to know how to clone in the missing faces over the masks?

Performing with masks is still strange, and it does reduce the sense of expression that you can glean from people, but it’s the right thing to do.

Some of that expression is totally irrelevant. I don’t like to watch orchestra recordings or concerts particularly. I keep my eyes closed. The video directors’ efforts to follow the theme, like a sports event, annoy me. We’ll look forward to seeing how you guys do it and how many cameras you use, and how many cuts and how many fades and dissolves and moving cameras. My advice is to keep it simple, especially when there are so few people onstage.

That’s one of the reasons we’re calling the first program Simple Gifts. It’s not about being elaborate. But we do have an interesting wrinkle on Wednesday’s live stream program, involving Quiet City of Copland. We will use drone footage that’s been filmed remotely showing the emptiness of Boston during the lockdown, and also prerecorded segments of two of our musicians performing in downtown Boston. These snippets will work their way in and out of the live performance. It will create something visually distinctive and unexpected, and it will address the strange spiritual moment we’re in.

I gather you have the rights to subsequent use of the video, which is great, because you might run afoul of the copyright bots in the live performance [see BMInt’s article HERE]. It’s sometimes necessary or possible to pre-clear.

We do. We have all rights pre-cleared. But as BMint has pointed out, it’s a serious issue that has yet to be adequately addressed nationally. If we do get stopped, at least we’ll still retain all that footage.

* * *

Your two concerts are going to help out 13 or 18 or some small number of the players who usually make up your orchestra of a hundred, but what about the rest? How are they   faring, and does the Landmarks management feel much responsibility toward them?

We do, and we want to give them as much work as possible. That’s one of the main incentives for us to create these programs this summer. But it simply isn’t possible to bring together an orchestra of 60 or 80. There is no venue or circumstance in which that can happen right now. But as we know, the situation is constantly changing. When there is an opportunity for live performance again — and the chance to perform as a larger ensemble — we will consider every option.

You certainly don’t want to do a Zoom version with everybody in the orchestra in a different room, in a different time zone, and with different amounts of digital delay. That’s a disaster.

I will say that the Pops did an incredibly powerful Zoom collaboration, Summon the Heroes, earlier this year, which was shown again during the Fourth celebration. It was the best I’ve seen. They had a great team doing it. But that sort of thing takes a lot of time and consumes a lot of resources. I’m not sure that’s what Landmarks should be doing right now.

Do you have any idea of the demographics of your web audience?

The numbers for live streams are sometimes disappointing, but then we see the next morning that several hundred more people have watched overnight, delayed, and over the course of the week, it’s running into the many thousands. I hope that’ll be the case, and that what we do will prove compelling musically and thought-provoking in its message.

Well, the programming this summer seems more pops and light classical, and somewhat of a divergence from your usual practice of including serious masterpieces. Is that just a one-time divergence from your normal course, or am I not seeing it the way you are intending it?

I wouldn’t describe it that way myself. Appalachian Spring is 25 minutes long. It’s a substantive, significant work. What we’re going for is a diversity of expression that is quintessentially American. We’ve chosen works by nine composers, eight of whom are composers of color. In part, we’re exploring a question that people all over the country are asking right now: “What does it mean to be an American?” The first program is all US, but the second program includes music by two Latin American composers, both of whom were active in the States and made much of their careers in New York.

The Piazzolla is toe-tapping and highly melodic; everybody can love it. It maybe makes you think of pops, but of course Piazzolla also studied with Nadia Boulanger. He was a crossover artist before we had that term, right?

I’d posit that Gottschalk was the first.

Sounds good to me. He was in that same mode of active, touring, performing composer, a musical omnivore who lived in many worlds at once. But it is true that we’re presenting shorter pieces that are highly listenable. We want to hang onto our audience, after all!

I just don’t know how many people really want to hear the Brahms Third all the way through on a phone or tablet. Web audiences feel free to hit the pause button, go get a bite to eat, make a quick phone call. Attention spans on the screen are just so different than when you’re settled into a concert hall. Or sitting on the Esplanade. I don’t know that full symphonies on screens make much sense, at least for our audience right now.

* * *

Emmet Price to co-host.

How much of the social messaging is going to be didactic and how much of it is going to be about how the music matters?

It’s all the latter; it’s about fun; it’s about enjoyment; it’s about engaging people; it’s about emotion, not head. We have two wonderful hosts who are gifted at connecting with audiences: Emmett Price and Janet Wu. Emmett will host Wednesday’s live stream. Janet will be there for the July 29 release. They’ll have interesting things to say about the background of these works and their composers — what influenced them — but we’re all agreed it’s best to let the music and the musicians carry the show.

* * *

Any thought about streaming some of the Tuesday night rehearsal live?

That might be an interesting thing to do.

Why you didn’t use T.J. Anderson’s realization of Treemonisha?

Anderson scored for a larger ensemble than we can fit in our space, the beautiful music room at Futura Productions in Roslindale. We’re performing Rick Benjamin’s arrangement, which is for a group much closer to the Appalachian Spring instrumentation. I wish we could field a chorus to perform Treemonisha’s joyous ending, the “A Real Slow Drag.” But group singing is not allowable right now.

Choruses are infamous superspreaders.

* * *

On the July 15th program you introduce us to two composers that most of us have never heard of, Valerie Coleman and Jeff Scott.

Right. They’re both members of the wind quintet Imani Winds, a major success story in American music. Flutist Valerie Coleman also serves as the group’s principal composer. Jeff Scott is the hornist. Since most of the show is string-centered, I wanted to give our terrific woodwinds something interesting to do.

These two pieces offer completely new sounds to the mix. Coleman composed “Umoja” as a call-and-response-style work in celebration of the first day of Kwanzaa, the title coming from the Swahili word for “unity.” Scott’s “Startin’ Sumthin’” is somehow a distillation of bebop for wind quintet, which sounds outrageous, but it really works.

Will the composers be playing?

No, it’ll be our principal players.

Valerie Coleman in particular is a hot name these days. She just wrote a commission for the Philadelphia Orchestra Gala, written specifically for distance performing. It seems every orchestra in the country right now would love a piece from her. She’s an artist of the moment.

Are you thinking about commissioning her?

We’d love to, but I wonder how available she is. We do have a number of commissions in the works, though. Berklee’s Francine Trester has written a wonderful work commemorating the Nineteenth Amendment. And Diane Clayton-White has written a choral work based on the Negro spiritual In Bright Mansions Above, taking Roland Carter’s well-known arrangement as her starting point. These are both for full orchestra, of course, so we don’t know when we’ll be able to give those premieres. Another composer I’m closely in touch with is Nkeiru Okoye, who has written for Landmarks before. I’d love to include some of her music in future programs, and have a couple of ideas around works of hers that could be done with smaller forces.

* * *

Regarding the second concert, Florence Price seems to be also a hot ticket these days, but we don’t know the others.

Ashleigh Gordon and Castle of our Skins — having brainstormed with us in creating this program — will be featured in Michael Abel’s Delights and Dances, a kind of concerto grosso for string quartet and orchestra. Gabriela Díaz will play first violin in that quartet and then serve as violin soloist in Piazzolla’s The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, the Spring and Summer movements.

And Gabriela will be joined by cellist Francesca McNeely in the boogie-woogie movement from David Baker’s piano trio, Roots II. Baker was one of the composers sometimes referred to as Third Stream — Gunther Schuller’s term, I think — who were interested in combining jazz and classic idioms. It’s a very cool piece.

And then Aldemaro Romero’s Fuga con Pajarillo?

He was a Venezuelan composer of a generation or two ago, before El Sistema was a generally known phenomenon. Gustavo Dudamel later asked Romero to make a full-orchestra arrangement of this work, but we will do the original string orchestra version. Fuga con pajarillo means fugue with a pajarillo, a traditional Venezuelan dance. It’s really fun. Kind of “Dance Hall meets Switched-on Bach.

So do you have a cocktail recommendation?

Cocuy, from agave, is the Venezuelan national drink. It makes a great Margarita.

Christopher Wilkins fronted Castle of Our Skins members and the Boston Landmarks Orchestra last summer

July 15, 2020 7-8pm ET | Live Stream (1)


Boston Landmarks Orchestra, Christopher Wilkins, conductor
Hosted by Emmett G. Price III, Landmarks Orchestra Board of Advisors Member

Scott Joplin Treemonisha Overture, arr. Richard Benjamin
Aaron Copland Quiet City   
Valerie Coleman Umoja      
Jeff Scott Startin’ Sumthin’              
Aaron Copland Appalachian Spring Suite (original version)

Two beloved works by composers from very different backgrounds—both unmistakably American—highlight the opening concert: Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring and Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha. The Americanness of these pieces comes from their fusion of New World tunes with classical style, and the vigor of their rooted-in-the-soil dance rhythms. Recent creations by two Black artists now at the forefront of American musical life, Valerie Coleman and Jeff Scott, swing with euphoric energy in the tradition of American eclecticism.

Christopher Wilkins will lead a digital Interlude talk about Appalachian Spring Suite; date and time TBA.


July 29, 2020 7-8pm ET | (2)


Boston Landmarks Orchestra, Christopher Wilkins, conductor
Hosted by journalist Janet Wu

In partnership with Castle of our Skins

Aldemaro Romero
David Baker Roots II: Boogie Woogie
Florence Price ‘Clementine’ and ‘Shortnin’ Bread’ from Five Folksongs in Counterpoint
Michael Abels Delights and Dances
Astor Piazzolla ‘Spring’ and ‘Summer’ from The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires arr. Leonid Desyatnikov, Gabriela Díaz, violin

Landmarks’ dance concerts always incorporate music of many cultures, reflecting the extraordinary diversity of today’s Boston. Black and Latinx composers—contributors to the classical concert tradition for centuries—have played a central role in defining the essential sound of American music. Special guests Castle of our Skins (Gabriela Díaz, violin; Mina Lavcheva, violin; Ashleigh Gordon, viola; Francesca McNeely, cello) bring virtuosity and vitality to several heart-pounding works of the Americas.

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