Stormy weather no problem for Boston Landmarks Orchestra’s sea-tossed opener

July 16, 2015 at 12:54 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

“And God Created Great Whales” by Alan Hovhaness was performed by Christopher Wilkins and the Boston Landmarks Orchestra Wednesday night at Emmanuel Church.

To open their summer season Christopher Wilkins and the Boston Landmarks Orchestra performed a wide-ranging program of works that churned with the sounds of the river and sea.

The threat of rain and lighting moved Wednesday night’s concert from its scheduled location, the DCR Hatch Shell on the Charles River Esplanade, indoors to Emmanuel Church. But the change didn’t affect the enjoyment or the results as the orchestra played with commitment and precision.

Founded in 2001, the Boston Landmarks Orchestra comprises professional musicians dedicated to bringing classical music to wide audiences free of charge. It’s probably the best bargain in town because the playing is exceptional. The orchestra is strong, clear, and clean in all sections, yet the musicians are also capable of blending for a warm enveloping sound.

Christopher Wilkins is a fine conductor, leading with broad sweeping gestures to coax smooth phrases from the orchestra while shaping lines with colorful dynamic shading.

The heftiest work on program, Debussy’s La Mer, brought the richest musical rewards. Wilkins led a reading that was awash in bold colors. In the first movement of the triptych, brass, woodwinds, and strings came together in a silky wash of sound. Sunlit horn chords, silvery cello sounds, and burbling woodwind figures graced the second movement while the finale was aptly stormy, the music eventually coming to rest on glassy string sonorities as a wistful oboe floated overhead.

While the Debussy reveled in impressionistic sounds, Alan Hovhaness’ And God Created Great Whales featured the orchestra in bright, edgy tones. Hovhaness’ mystical music sometimes involves environmental themes. And God Created Great Whales, with its collage of childlike melodies and biting dissonances, is one of his most frequently performed works.

The noteworthy element of this piece is the use of live recordings of whale songs. Wednesday’s performance substituted the original recording with one collected by Dr. Salvatore Cerchio courtesy of the New England Aquarium. The sounds on Cerchio’s recording, collected off the coast of Kaua’i in the Hawaiian islands, are hauntingly beautiful. Low guttural sounds bloom into piercing, siren-like pitches and long sorrowful moans.

Wilkins and the orchestra gave a bold reading of the work, the musicians rendering the pentatonic main theme with grace and mystery while delivering the slithery trombone smears and thick blocks of dissonance with earthy force.

Wednesday’s program also included two new works: Francine Trester’s At the River, heard in its premiere, and the first New England performance of Kevin Puts’ River’s Rush.

Trester’s intelligent style involves the layering of short motives to create a silky sonic fabric. At the River takes as its source the lyrical hymn tune of the same name by Robert Lowry. It’s a tune well known among Landmark Orchestra audiences, as the hymn is the ensemble’s anthem, and the orchestra commissions a new setting for each summer’s opening concert.

Trester’s version is a gorgeous reimagining of the original tune, which never appears in full, though brief utterances of the theme crop up as a leitmotiv the introduction and vocal solo. The latter was handled with charm by soprano Jayne West, whose delicate voice made much of Trester’s wide melodic contours. Wilkins and the orchestra gave the work stellar advocacy through a tender reading.

Kevin Puts, who earned the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for his opera Silent Night, writes music of bracing energy, and River’s Rush is no exception.

Composed in 2004, this single-movement tone poem, as its title suggests, captures the rush and speed of swiftly moving water. Undulating figures grow into lines of sparkling intensity while hulking brass chords ground the texture in solid blocks of sound. Wind and string figures fuse together into pillars of harmonies that are created, the composer notes, by superimposing major and minor triads. The effect is like the river music that opens Wagner’s Das Rheingold, but on steroids.

The Boston Landmarks musicians played the piece with clarity and precision, shaping the disparate passages of work with powerful swells when called upon while keeping the energy moving at a boisterous pace.

No orchestral concert evoking the sea would be complete without Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture (aka Fingal’s Cave), which Wilkins and BLO performed in an alert and colorful reading.

The opening phrases seemed to lap over each other like waves on the shore. Dynamic shading was handled with fine control, and the ensemble responded to Wilkins’ gestures with rapt attention. The churning rhythms that appear midwork lacked something in clarity and bite. Solo wind lines fared best, the clarinet and flute sounding smooth and elegant.

The next concert by the Boston Landmarks Orchestra will feature music by Copland, Gómez, Grau, and Frank with Alex Alvear’s Salsa Band and BAJUCOL Folkloric Ballet 7 p.m. July 22 at the DCR Hatch Shell.

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