Boston Landmarks Orchestra opens summer season with birds, brass and bucolics

July 14, 2016 at 11:55 am

By Matthew Guerrieri

Christopher Wilkins conducted the opening concert of the Boston Landmarks Orchestra Wednesday night.

Christopher Wilkins conducted the opening concert of the Boston Landmarks Orchestra Wednesday night.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Overture to Aristophanes’ The Wasps sounded pretty good from the security line to get into the Boston Landmarks Orchestra’s first concert of the summer.

The Esplanade was subtly but effectively enclosed by barriers; bags were checked and tagged. Aristophanes probably could have had some fun with that paradox: a closed-off open space. And, for once, the city’s din lent cogent critique, with a prop plane and a couple of helicopters providing buzzing, insectoid counterpoint even as the score turned bumptiously pastoral.

But every year, Landmarks Orchestra concerts feel more and more like redoubts, stubborn holdouts of sonic nuance (however well-amplified) amidst the urban howl, whether actual or figurative. (Indeed, at least one of those helicopters—which persistently circled back throughout the evening—was apparently surveilling a Black Lives Matter march across town.) Conductor Christopher Wilkins’ annual “Rhapsody in Green” programs mean to celebrate nature by way of the Esplanade’s small patch of it. Sometimes, one is reminded of just how small that patch is.

Tan Dun’s Passacaglia: Sound of Wind and Birds, for instance, took on the city with only occasional success. The piece is saturated with nature, elements that this performance amplified, in more ways than one: the original version used prerecorded instruments imitating birds, but Wilkins, with the help of Mass Audubon’s Wayne Petersen, replaced that with recordings of actual New England birds, piped through speakers and twittering from surrounding smartphones equipped with the orchestra’s app. The audience was also tasked with imitating the sound of the title’s wind.

That theater was surely what compelled Wilkins to describe Sound of Wind and Birds as “decidedly on the innovative side”; the music itself effectively errs on the side of Mahler and Stravinsky. The piece pits natural and the manufactured worlds against each other: at the climax, a long section of mechanistic repetition—the sort of grim chug that, once upon a time, would have made a socialist realist’s eyes wide with delight—suddenly gives way to more prerecorded birdsong. But the surroundings made a more poignant point. The chirping, and the score’s quiet ending, were gently, inevitably swallowed up by the sounds of planes and trains and automobiles.

The Landmarks penchant for collaboration brought the young musicians of the Conservatory Lab Charter School’s Dudamel Orchestra to the stage; conductor Christopher Schroeder led them in spirited performances of the “Sailor’s Dance” from Reinhold Gliére’s The Red Poppy (just barely nature-themed) and an arrangement of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” (completely off-topic, but rendered more than welcome by concertmaster Jazmine Brown’s marvelous, assured turn on lead vocals).

Professionals and students then joined under Wilkins’ baton for Aaron Copland’s suite, Music for Movies, performed with a robust warmth that largely warded off the noisy ambience. The Copland stood its sonic ground with unassuming richness.

A rollicking, confident reading of the first part of Michael Gandolfi’s The Garden of Cosmic Speculation did so with sheer inventive fizz. A high point of 21st-century orchestral composition, the work starts with more prerecorded birdsong—Scottish birds, this time, placing the listener in Gandolfi’s inspiration, Charles Jencks’ titular experimental garden.

But the music channel-surfs the universe. The overlapping patterns, the layers of conversation, the sharp shifts from groove to groove and color to color—always surprising, always satisfying—give an uncanny sense of vantages both atomic and cosmological, inducing wondrously appealing vertigo.

The finale, Ottorino Respighi’s Pines of Rome, was, symbolically, almost too exact: a bit of nature only given status by the surrounding city.

The performance, though, was outdoor-concert grand, and featured one further collaboration: brass players from the Boston University Tanglewood Institute were stationed on opposite sides of the Esplanade’s ring, calling the legions down the Appian Way in the final movement.

Up close to the Hatch Shell, it probably made a dashing surround-sound effect, but farther back, the difference between the orchestra, mediated through amplification and speakers, and the isolated, unamplified brass created rather a different effect: shadows, maybe, or ghosts, or (in light of Gandolfi’s speculations) incursions from some parallel universe. Or, perhaps: premonitions.

Matthew Guerrieri has written frequently about music for the Boston Globe and NewMusicBox. He is the author of The First Four Notes: Beethoven’s Fifth and the Human Imagination.

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