Boston Landmarks Orchestra opens season in style with music for a summer evening

July 20, 2017 at 11:45 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Sonja DuToit Tengblad performed Samuel Barber's "Knoxville: Summer of 1915" Wedesday night with the Boston Landmarks Orchestra. Photo: Natalie Finazzo Fox

Sonja DuToit Tengblad performed Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” Wednesday night with the Boston Landmarks Orchestra. Photo: Natalie Finazzo Fox

Concerts of the Boston Landmarks Orchestra are free to the public, and listeners who venture onto Boston’s Esplanade every summer receive much more than light-classical fare. Indeed, the orchestra frequently presents standard favorites with works that don’t usually find their way onto programs of Boston’s other professional orchestras.

Such was the case Wednesday night at the DCR Hatch Shell, where Christopher Wilkins led the ensemble in a season-opening concert of music by Delius, Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Verdi, Barber, and Coolidge.

The Landmarks musicians make it a point to perform works by Bostonians, and the focus in recent seasons has been on presenting female composers of the city’s musical past. One figure that has appeared on Landmark’s programs in recent summers is Peggy Stuart Coolidge (1913-1981), who had a number of works performed by the Boston Pops in her lifetime.

Her Blue Planet, heard Wednesday night, has only been performed a handful of times since its completion in 1971. This short concert work is best known today as the theme for the World Wildlife Fund. Wednesday’s performance revealed it to be a piece of sparkling clarity and imagination and one that deserves to be heard more often.

Under Wilkins’ direction, the musicians wove the lines of the piece into a fine thread of sound. Sweeping melodies formed the heart of the work, culminating in surging figures in the brass. The Landmarks Orchestra played it with equal parts power and elegance.

Similarly affecting was the evening’s performance of Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915. One of the finest pieces of American music, it takes its text from James Agee, recalling his memories as a young boy enjoys a summer evening with his family. Barber’s richly lyrical music fully captures the nostalgia of Agee’s prose.

Sonja DuToit Tengblad proved an ideal advocate in her debut with the Landmarks Orchestra, the soprano delivered a stirring rendition of the score. Her voice had a touch of warmth and grace, and she swelled her phrases on the captivating line, “the stars are wide and alive.” Wilkins spun a soft bed of accompaniment where the piece called for it. In the central section, he pulled music of pulsing energy to reflect the bustle of the city as described in the text.

Christopher Wilkins opened the Boston Landmarks Orchestra season Wednesday night.

Christopher Wilkins opened the Boston Landmarks Orchestra season Wednesday night.

Two other works also evoked an atmospheric sense of the summer season.

Frederick Delius’s Summer Evening is an eight-minute tone poem where solo winds and strings waft in the air like perfume. Wilkins shaped the lines with tasteful rubato shading and built the music into a satisfying climax.

Verdi’s score to The Sicilian Vespers contains music that conveys the four seasons. In “Summer,” heard Wednesday night, trembling string figures suggest a coming storm. But elsewhere the short piece unfolds into a jolly scene as the music flowers into singing phrases.

Listeners got a glimpse of the coming cold season in “Winter” from the same piece. As in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Verdi conjures a cold wind with chattering figures in the strings conveying an icy landscape. Here too the scene transforms optimistically as the music evokes people warming by the fireside. In both Verdi works, Wilkins found the romping power of the composer’s style.

Vaughan Williams’ English Folksong Suite is a popular work for wind ensemble, but it also makes for a charming orchestral work through Gordon Jacob’s popular arrangement. The first movement had a firm sense of direction under Wilkins’ baton, and Ben Fox’s oboe solo in the second movement floated effortlessly above the orchestra.

The finest playing of the evening came in the concert’s finale, Elgar’s Enigma Variations. The piece has been a frequent item in concerts by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Boston Philharmonic in recent seasons. Landmarks’ performance revealed the same Edwardian pomp and power.

Wilkins conducted the work with an eye to the big picture. The lines of “C.A.E.,” a portrait of Elgar’s wife Alice, rose and fell like waves, and the phrases of “R.B.T.” moved as if a dance. “Nimrod” was grand and beautiful, as Wilkins shaped the music with a broad tempo to a nobilmente climax.

The orchestra’s individual sections had a stellar night. Stinging brass chords were the highlight of “G.R.S.” and “B.G.N.” featured darkly lyrical cello phrases. The final movement, “E.D.U.” a self-portrait of Elgar, flowed with power and energy as if to put an exclamation point on a fine evening of music.

The Mercury Orchestra will perform music of Strauss and Wagner 7 p.m. Wednesday at the DCR Hatch Shell.


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