IN: News & Features

Landmark Journeys: Dances from Beethoven to Gottschalk


Christopher Wilkins (file photo)

BMInt shares with pleasure Landmarks Orchestra’s “podium note” from Artistic Director Christopher Wilkins for the Dance Night beginning on Wednesday night at 7:00 in the Hatch Shell.

On any given night, you’re likely to see young dancers at Landmarks concerts moving to the music. They’ll dance wherever the spirit moves them: on the lawn, along the walkways, or in front of the stage. Their motion becomes more directed when they enter the Maestro Zone, where tonight they will receive conducting lessons from Sheila del Bosque, multi-award-wining flutist, composer, and conductor. Originally from Cuba, she recently graduated from the Berklee College of Music, with a dual degree in Performance and Film Scoring, and a minor in Orchestral Conducting.

Dance Night has become an annual Landmarks tradition. It amplifies the natural move-to-the-music inclinations of our audience. But it also provides an opportunity to showcase the depth of talent that runs through Boston’s diverse cultural communities. In recent seasons, dance collaborations have represented traditions from Haiti, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Venezuela, West Africa, Ireland, Armenia, Syria, and Korea.

Hector Berlioz stitched his Roman Carnival Overture together using two themes composed in 1837 for Benvenuto Cellini. In his Mémoirs, he wrote about the disastrous premiere of that opera: “I had been greatly struck by certain episodes in the life of Benvenuto Cellini. I had the misfortune to believe they would make an interesting and dramatic subject for an opera.” The overture’s opening flourish contains the seeds of the work’s second main theme, which arrives later with the carnival music. The first theme—introduced by the English horn—comes from a love duet between the opera’s artist-protagonist Benvenuto Cellini and the woman he loves, Teresa. Violas repeat the tune, then the full orchestra, with invigorating accompaniment in the trumpets and percussion. A sweetly sung cadence in the strings runs into a swirling gust, stirred up by woodwinds and percussion. Suddenly, we’re swept off our feet and into an Italian street scene—already in progress—amid the exuberant chaos of a Roman carnival.

Richard Wagner was not the first to associate the propulsive energy of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony with music for dance, but he gave the work its most memorable description:

The Symphony is the Apotheosis of the Dance itself: it is Dance in its highest aspect, the loftiest deed of bodily motion, incorporated into an ideal mold of tone.

Compact rhythmic cells are ubiquitous in the Seventh Symphony. Each of the four movements has at least one characteristic rhythmic “motto,” accounting for the symphony’s constantly throbbing energy. The opening gestures of the symphony form a grand portal: the full orchestra drives in posts—powerful, widely spaced chords—while the winds create long spans of singing lines between them. The Vivace main section emerges with Haydnesque humor. Strings and woodwinds toss an ever-shrinking motive back and forth, until the woodwinds finally take a rhythmic kernel and run with it. From then on, that kernel is a constant presence. There is no second theme in the first movement—a rare case. But Beethoven’s inventions are so varied that the necessary contrast is already built in. By tradition, the second movement of a classical symphony is broadly paced. But in the Seventh, the tempo indication is Allegretto—on the moving side of moderate—urging the performers to keep the energy up. This second movement has been a favorite with the public since the work’s premiere in 1813. The third movement is a scherzo; the tempo indication is Presto—the fastest of all common tempo indications for Beethoven. The scherzo explodes with good-natured energy. Its athleticism is balanced by a singing trio that is often compared to a pilgrims’ chorus. The finale—Allegro con brio—is a thrilling, obsessively rhythmic romp, not so different from a Roman carnival.

Two summers ago, on this stage, Chyrstyn Mariah Fentroy made time stand still, with an arresting interpretation of “The Swan” from Camille Saint-Saëns’s The Carnival of the Animals. At the time, she was a Soloist in Boston Ballet. Today, she is a star of the company, having become a Principal Dancer in 2022. She writes:

As artists, we are responsible for articulating the ineffable. Through movement and remaining present, we remind ourselves and our audiences what it is like to feel—to be alive.

Tonight, she articulates the ineffable in Aurora’s Act III Variation—known as the Wedding Variation—from Boston Ballet’s signature production of The Sleeping Beauty, as adapted from the original choreography by Marius Petipa.

For the past few seasons, it has been our honor to partner with the professional dancers of JAE, Jean Appolon Expressions. In choosing repertoire for our collaborations, Founder and Director Jean Appolon has twice selected Haitian folk songs, music associated with singer-actress Toto Bissainthe. In 2019, we performed Paka Loko in an orchestration by Gonzalo Grau. Tonight, we premiere a new arrangement of the folk song Dey. It is a moving tribute to—and lament for—Haitian society, culture, and community. The arresting orchestration is by a longtime Landmarks collaborator, composer David Kempers.

orchestral version by David Kempers
based on a traditional Haitian folk song, whose lyrics are:


Déy-o m-rélé déy-o
Ayiti roy (bis)
Ayiti chéri min pitit-ou mouri
Mon lot-yo toutoni

Sa ka poté dèy-la ou roy
Ayiti toma min san-ou lan diaspora
Min péyi-a ap kaba
Sa ka poté déy-la pou ou Ö!

Ayiti jé fémin
Ayiti désonnin
Ayiti détounin
Sa ka poté déy la pou-ou

Ayiti m-rélé ou
M-rélé ou pou ou rélé-m
Fok ou rélé tout san-ou
Fok peyi-a sanblé
Roy-roy pou konbit-la

Mourning, I cry mourning for Haiti;
Mourning, I sing the mourning of Haiti
Dear Haiti, your children are dead
And the others are naked.

Who will mourn for you?
Our Haiti, your blood is in the diaspora.
The country is dying.
Who will mourn?

Haiti blinded
Haiti diverted
Haiti zombified
Who will mourn?


Haiti, I call you.
I call you so that you call me,
That you call together all our blood,

That the country shall unite,
In our traditional solidarity.

It is thrilling to host again the distinguished Armenian dance company Sayat Nova, founded in 1986 by Director Apo Ashjian. Garen Avetissyan serves as the company’s General Manager. The music we perform together is in two parts, beginning with Donagan Hayastan (Festive Armenia), composed by Khachatur Avetisyan. Avetisyan was an expert in both classical music and Armenian folk music. His work is performed with permission of the composer’s son, Mikael Avetisyan, a conductor currently living in California. The second dance is titled Vasbouragan. Vasbouragan was part of Western Armenia, but now lies in Eastern Turkey. During World War I there was a panic in Vasbouragan caused by rumors of an impending Ottoman attack. 150,000 Armenians were displaced during an evacuation, with thousands dying. The region was ultimately lost to Turkey.  According to Apo Ashjian, the titles of the dances in this movement have been erased from history, so that, despite their joyous sound, they have a dark history. Syrian-born composer Kareem Roustom has orchestrated these dances with inventiveness, orchestrational mastery, and sensitivity to Armenian folk style. He imitates the sound of several Armenian folk instruments, including dumbek, duduk and zurna. Attempts to recreate the sound of the zurna—a nasally resonant double-reed instrument—led to interesting exchanges between the composer and principal trumpeter Dana Oakes. Kareem suggested using “a cheapish cardboard mute with a kazoo stuck in it.” Dana countered by recommending a “buzz-wow” mute.

The New York City Ballet commissioned Hershy Kay’s Cakewalk Suite in 1951. It is based on piano pieces by Louis Moreau Gottschalk. Gottschalk was a one-of-a-kind. A Southern abolitionist whose music drew admiration from both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, he had a knack for bridging cultural divides. Born in New Orleans in 1829, Gottschalk was sent as a teenager to study piano and composition in Paris. Chopin heard the young prodigy perform and predicted he would become “the king of pianists.” Gottschalk’s early piano pieces in a “Creole” style made him a household name throughout the continent before he was twenty years old.

Wherever his travels took him, Gottschalk absorbed local popular musical styles, anticipating later developments by decades. There are African-derived dance rhythms foreshadowing ragtime, and elements of Caribbean drumming that did not reappear in concert music until the mambo craze of the 1930s. He was also a consummate showman. His Symphony No. 1, A Night in the Tropics, was premiered in Havana in 1859 with over 650 performers, including a symphony orchestra, a US military band, and Cuban drummers from the island’s eastern tip, Guantánamo.

We have assembled four sections from the complete Cakewalk Suite. The first is a high-stepping march, which we use as an overture. The next section is the Pas de deux; it is mainly music for solo celeste in Kay’s orchestration. But the movement begins with some of Gottschalk’s best-known music, taken from his Souvenir de Porto Rico, also known as Marche des Gibaros. Gottschalk later recalled writing it during his visit to Puerto Rico in 1857:

Perched upon the edge of a crater, my cabin overlooked the whole country. Every evening I moved my piano out upon the terrace, and played for myself alone. Everything that the scene opened up before me inspired. It was there that I composed Marche des Gibaros.

Marche des Gibaros appears again as an introduction in the next section, called The Wild Pony, where it is accompanied by a humorous version of the Dies irae, from Latin Mass for the Dead, with “stopped” notes in the horns, a raspy effect resulting from the players pushing their fists into the bells of their instruments. The quick section of this movement comes from Gottschalk’s lively piano work, Orfa. The final movement in our set is the first movement of Kay’s suite. It is an elaboration of one of Gottschalk’s most celebrated pieces, Bamboula. Both Bamboula and Marche des Gibaros figure prominently in a different Gottschalk-inspired dance, Great Galloping Gottschalk, another New York City Ballet concoction, and still a favorite of the many ballets Balanchine created for that company.

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  1. It’s a shame that symphonies these days think they need to attract the public with dance, jazz, rap. Just play the great music, there is enough of it!

    Comment by Adam Steele — August 25, 2023 at 11:58 am

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