Dance is the thing at fizzing Boston Landmarks concert

August 18, 2016 at 1:43 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Boston Landmarks--Armenian

Dancers perform during the performance of Kareem Roustom’s “Armenian Dances” at the Boston Landmarks Orchestra concert Wednesday night. Photo: Kristo Kondakci

When reading the history of classical music, it is impossible to ignore the influence of dance. Composers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries incorporated dance music into larger forms, and others penned ballets that fused sound and physical motion into a single medium. If music is the language of emotion, then dance, according to Martha Graham, “is the hidden language of the soul.” 

That was the thought experienced Wednesday night at the Hatch Shell, where Christopher Wilkins and the Boston Landmarks Orchestra offered a fizzing Terpsichorean program that featured music by Skalkottas, Needham, Roustom, Bernstein and others.

Four of the works heard were premieres. 

Gonzalo Grau’s Hermana Frontera, heard for the first time Wednesday, showcased the full powers of the Landmarks Orchestra. Grau’s music is frequently featured in Landmarks concerts and it is easy to hear why. His style possesses a strong rhythmic drive and an immediate appeal well suited to populist programs like the one heard Wednesday.

Hermana Frontera spins from simple gestures that grow to cover a canvass of melody and rhythm. As is common in his music, Latin-American styles pepper the score. Sweeping melodies dissolve into little more than a pulse before the music builds again. Wilkins found the rhythmic verve in each page of the score and the Landmarks Orchestra answered with playing of propulsive energy.

One of the most memorable pieces heard Wednesday night was Kareem Roustom’s Armenian Dances, which also received its world premiere.

More folk-like than Alfred Reed’s better-known  piece of the same name, Roustom’s score is a charming and accessible collection of dances that brim with silky lyricism. Several of the dances bristle with energy while others involve a swirl of melody and grinding bass figures, spotlighted by fine contributions from solo violin and trumpet.

Through it all, Wilkins led a performance shaped by tasteful phrasing fine-tuned to the idiomatic style, making a strong case for this populist work.

Similarly attractive was Clint Needham’s Urban Sprawl. Heard in its New England premiere, the piece walks the wire between jazzy melodies and driving minimalism. Clocking in at less than seven minutes, this short crowd pleaser is chock-full of twisting rhythms than spin about in a clean formal design that resembles the work of Bernstein.

The Landmarks Orchestra gave a primal, high-octane performance that drew out the sweltering blues melodies from the score. And even though Urban Sprawl was not written for dancers, it made for an eye-catching ballet. Yo-El Cassell’s choreography, which involved young dancers from One City Youth Movement in darting, angular movements, aptly reflected Needham’s energetic music.

Driving rhythms were also the hallmark of Ryan Edwards’ and Patrick Greene’s Mabinte,which received its world premiere as well. This ten-minute work is an enticing combination of African drum rhythms, hand clapping, and churning minimalist vamps that seem to turn about in place before flowering into passages of singing lyricism. 

The featured performers—drummers from the Camp Harbor View, Boys and Girls Clubs of Boston and Yawkey Club of Roxbury—played with fierce commitment.

The dancing transformed the work into an eye-catching experience. Led by Brian Mirage, the young dancers performed step-style movements that unfolded into a series of hip-hop twists and flips, effortlessly rendered by Mirage. 

Nikos Skalkottas’ Greek Dances took the listeners from the complex rhythms of African music and jazz to the rustic world of the composer’s native country. The three traditional dances that make up this piece are sprinkled with bristly modern sonorities that recall the music of Bartók. The opening “Kritikos” is a mixture of bucolic melody and rhythm while “Kleftikos” unfolds in a dense cloud of chords, which allowed for Landmarks woodwinds to soar overhead.

The third movement, “Epirotikos,” had a similar stirring energy of the first dance. But it was Wednesday’s performance that made this movement special. Conducting it was Angelo Tilas, who is completing services as manager of the DCR Hatch Shell and caretaker of the Esplanade. His conducting was simple and indirect, little more than a brisk side-to-side motion. The orchestra responded with affection and appreciation nonetheless, thankful for the work he has done over the past thirty-two years.

No genre combines dance and sound quite like ballet, and Wednesday night’s concert featured selections from Richard Rodgers’ Slaughter on Tenth Avenue and Bernstein’s Fancy Free. Both pieces reflect aspects of American popular music: Rodger’s the melodic sweep of Broadway song; Bernstein’s the sounds of jazz.

For the Rodgers, Wilkins drew energetic playing from the Landmarks Orchestra, the ensemble, at times, taking on the power and swagger of a swing band.

Dance also played a role in Wednesday’s performance of Fancy Free. Yo-El Cassell’s choreography, set to the “Three Dance Variations and Finale,” told a simple tale of hats that, when worn, result in colorful and athletic movements from the dancers. Enjoyable as this display was, it would have been nice to see the original choreography to the ballet.

The musical performance was remarkable, with Wilkins leading with quick tempos that allowed for the off-center rhythms of the opening to swing with vigor. The slow movements were played with a gritty blues quality, and the piano riffs that pepper the score were handled deftly by Leslie Amper.

An encore, “Footloose,” filled the stage in front of the Shell with dancers. As the audience stood and clapped, there was no doubt that Martha Graham’s words rang true.

Ronald Feldman will lead the Longwood Symphony Orchestra in music by Mozart, Kaska, and Dvorák 7 p.m. Wednesday at the DCR Hatch Shell.;


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