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Music and the visual arts have long gone hand in hand, and the relationship between the two is a subject long pondered by artists and great minds. Goethe famously referred to architecture as frozen music, and painter Vasily Kandinsky gave many of his works names such as “Composition” and “Improvisation.”
Wednesday night at the DCR Hatch Shell, the Boston Landmarks Orchestra, under the direction of Christopher Wilkins, explored the boundaries between painting and music with a sweeping program of works by Mussorgsky, Offenbach, de Falla, Loeffler, Stella Sung, and Peggy Stuart Coolidge.
Coolidge (1913-1981) was one of the first American female composers to have her works recorded, and she wrote many symphonic pieces for Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. Her music frequently reflects a folk idiom, much like that of Copland and Roy Harris, but her style also bears resemblance to the roughness of Ives as well as the tunefulness of Gershwin.
Her symphonic work Isabella, heard in its belated world premiere Wednesday night, is a mix of the latter influences. The eight-minute piece, written in 1978 and only recently discovered in the Harvard Library, captures the mercurial character of its subject, Isabella Stewart Gardner. At times the music is sly, at others warm and gentle, yet it always moves in a firm, clear direction.
The opening gestures recall Ives’ thick walls of sound, but these give way to a rhapsodic solo for violin. The core of the work consists of sweeping melodies, which are occasionally broken up by passages of churning rhythm. But above all the work’s charm lies in its plush orchestration. String and wind figures frequently break over one another like waves.
Wilkins and the orchestra gave an energetic performance to make a strong case for a work that deserves more performances.
Isabella was part of a series of pieces performed in the second half of the concert that served as a soundtrack to a short biography of Gardner, narrated by Peggy Fogelman, director of the Isabella Gardner Museum.
Symphonic works with narration can border on hokey, but Wednesday’s pairing of historical anecdotes, music, and visual image via paintings displayed on an overhead screen, made for an enjoyable and enriching experience.
The Intermezzo and Barcarole from Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman served as openers, sounding with stated grandeur and graceful lilt.
Two works reflected Gardner’s infatuation with Spanish culture.
Charles Martin Loeffler’s Divertissement espagnol is a short work for saxophone and orchestra that brims with Spanish flavored melody and rhythm. Saxophonist Ryan Yuré played with warm, smooth tone while the orchestra’s strings wrapped him in a blanket of sound.
The Spanish Dance No. 1 from de Falla’s La vida breve was given a whirling treatment, making for an evocative soundtrack to John Singer Sargent’s portrait of a Spanish dancer, El Jaleo, which was projected on an overhead screen.
The concert opened with the New England premiere of Stella Sung’s Rockwell Variations. The five tone poems that make up this work take as their cue paintings by that most American of artists, Norman Rockwell.
Sung’s music is warm, richly tonal, and filled with sweeping melody that could fit any American Experience documentary. That was particularly true of the first and last movements, which had buoyant energy and calming nostalgia, made clear through quotations of “God Bless America” and “America the Beautiful” to accompany Rockwell’s portrait JFK’s Bold Legacy.
“Checkers,” the subject of the third movement, is a study in musical humor. Various percussion knocks, whistles, slides, and rattles accompany a circus-like theme spread about the ensemble.
Most haunting was the fourth movement, an eerie, frightening portrayal of Rockwell’s Southern Justice, depicting the murder of three civil rights activists in Mississippi. Throughout, Wilkins led the Landmarks Orchestra in a colorful and evocative account of this affecting piece.
Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, in its most popular orchestral setting by Ravel, is perhaps orchestral music’s grandest illustration of sight in sound.
Wilkins led a thoroughly colorful performance that spotlighted the strengths of the Landmarks Orchestra. The opening Promenade was shaped with tasteful dynamic shading. The Gnome was appropriately awkward, with Wilkins stringing one slithery phrase after another. The Old Castle spotlighted aptly creaky bassoon and smooth saxophone solos.
The only weak points in this performance came in Bydlo, where the tubist cracked and strained a few notes in the exposed solo, and in Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle, where the trumpet solo sounded shaky and nervous.
Those problems were remedied in the Hut of Baba Yaga and Great Gate of Kiev, where the orchestra sounded with full, resplendent force.
The next concert by the Boston Landmarks Orchestra will feature operatic favorites by Verdi, Puccini, and Wagner 7 p.m. Wednesday at the DCR Hatch Shell. landmarksorchestra.org
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