“Telling Tales,” Boston Landmarks Orchestra’s season opener, comprised works that have memorable stories. At the Hatch Shell last night, the 21-year-old ensemble told fantastical stories without words, continuing Charles Ansbacher’s founding mission to bring free summer classical music to multitudes.
Starting with Summer, an adaptation from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in Rondo Veneziano style, the Prelude concert featured the Four Strings Academy with Landmarks Orchestra Principal Strings. Elijah Rock arranged by Moses Hogan then followed, its pizzicatos especially well pronounced. Jessie Montgomery’s Starburst began with rhythms in the basses and cellos, followed by a slower, melancholic melody in the strings. Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings allowed a fine blend among the young players to bloom to something quite stirring.
Christopher Wilkins then led the Landmarks Orchestra through the overture to British composer Ethyl Smyth’s The Wreckers. Smyth’s opera, composed at the beginning of the last century, amplifies reports she had heard of 19th-century villagers in coastal Cornwall luring passing ships onto the rocks by obliterating coastal lights on stormy nights. The residents would then board the wrecked ships, kill everyone on board, and loot everything in sight. Smyth had a colorful life herself; she was even jailed for throwing rocks through the Home Secretary’s window. The very active performance summoned up rugged land and stormy seas with tuba and high strings, alternating depicting shrieking wind, thunder, sailors singing sea shanties (featuring the French horns) and music of romance in the strings and English horn, then in the brass. It somehow foreshadowed Dukas’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which arrived later in the concert.
In Bedřich Smetana’s The Moldau from Ma Vlast (My Fatherland), the orchestra tone-painted the majestic Czech river in the Bohemian countryside. The flutes stated the melodies colorfully, and the harp plucked some raindrops while the strings evoked the swelling river; after a precarious passing through the rapids section led by trombones and tuba and undercurrents in the bassoons and timpani, bass drum and cymbals, the image gave way to the majestic climax in which the strings, and the Moldau theme once again emerge and majestically enter the sea.
In Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the orchestra told a complex tale with musical clarity, which most of us might associate with Mickey Mouse wreaking havoc in the 1940 Disney film, “Fantasia.” It may be hard to imagine, but Goethe originated the story in a poetic ballad. The BLMO shimmeringly summoned a mysterious melody depicting the castle and its lonely apprentice, alternating characterful rhythms in the bassoon and strings as he tries out different spells. With his own magic wand, Wilkins expertly conveyed the precarious situation as the magic gets out of hand, and he drew forth a solaceful relief as the Sorcerer returned.
The ensuing traversal of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique allowed us to hear the composer’s original sound effects and extravagant treatment of the orchestra as starling and new again… resembling a fever dream. The woodwinds started
the Reveries-Passions and then the violins followed with a long and dreamy tune that the woodwinds repeat; muted violins and solo French horn then continued the dialogue, culminating in a cadence. The second movement’s festive Ball scene gave voice to echt Viennese Gemütlichkeit through a French Fresnel lens. Scene aux champs’s (scene in the countryside) comfortable melodies in the strings, flute and English horn suddenly ceases as a drum roll announces the March to the Scaffold. We find ourselves in the narrator’s head as he dreams of witnessing his own execution. The marching theme came across with signal clarity, culminating in the Songe d’une nuit de sabbat (dream of a witches sabbath). Wilkins gave great definition to the spooky melodies, giving the clarinets full scope for unusual sounds from the clarinets and the percussion. It took very little imagination to hear the church bells announce the funeral.
Kudos to the orchestra for playing with so much clarity and distinction in tonight’s hazy heat and through the difficulties in balancing the orchestra sound in the Hatch Shell. The entire great lawn rose in praise.