Boston Landmarks Orchestra explores environmental issues in long, sea-faring voyage

August 16, 2018 at 11:55 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Stella Sung's "Oceana" was given its world premiere Wednesday night by Christopher Wilkins and the Boston Landmarks Orchestra.

Stella Sung’s “Oceana” was given its world premiere Wednesday night by Christopher Wilkins and the Boston Landmarks Orchestra.

In the spring of 2016, conductor Christopher Wilkins and composer Stella Sung attended a lecture at the New England Aquarium. There, marine biologists Scott Kraus and Christopher Clark discussed the problems of noise pollution brought about by shipping and ocean industry upon marine wildlife. Sung was inspired and set to work on a composition that reflected this environmental threat.

From an ecological standpoint, her resulting Oceana, which was commissioned by the Boston Landmarks Orchestra and heard in its world premiere at the Hatch Shell Wednesday night, projects a hopeful vision of a serene natural world led and protected by human efforts.

As concert music, it is consistently engaging. Lush and brimming with melody, Sung’s music has the broad sweep and direct emotional appeal of a film score. Like her Rockwell Reflections, which Wilkins and the Landmarks Orchestra performed in July 2016, Oceana is a multimedia experience. Haunting images of whales, darting fish, and littered beaches prepared by filmmaker Annie Crawley provide a visual narrative to a score rife with tension and release. The three interconnected sections of Oceana, which together run to 13 minutes, unfold from prerecorded whale songs. Sung’s melodic fragments gradually harmonize these sounds, as if to give hope to the idea that humans and marine animals can coexist.

But noises gradually interrupt the balance. Hammer strokes fill the air, and horns and trumpets blare out blistering dissonances. Yet Oceana concludes on a note of optimism. The whale songs return and are complemented by shimmering orchestral lines, a subtle call for humans to develop new ways to protect endangered marine life. Crawley’s final images, which continue after the final chord is sounded, drive the point home: whales and fish are photographed alongside human divers, who watch from a friendly, though cautious, distance.

Wilkins and the Landmarks Orchestra offered a vivid rendering of this intriguing mix of music, science, and activism to make Sung and Crawley’s environmentalist message ring clearly without being preachy.

In Bernard Herrmann’s Moby-Dick, which made up the bulk of Wednesday night’s program, man and nature clash once again. Premiered in 1940 when the composer was 28 years old, Moby-Dick looks ahead to the psychological drama the composer would mine in his film scores to Psycho and Taxi Driver.

Indeed, this cantata for tenor, bass, male chorus, and orchestra packs a dramatic punch. Herrmann’s music, with its cold text setting and thorny dissonances, conveys the inner conflict of Captain Ahab in his lust for vengeance upon the great white whale. Wilkins offered an abridged version of the 45-minute score by cutting the scenes for male chorus.

Wednesday’s performance was superb. As Ishmael, tenor Timothy Culver brought a mournful air to “It was a clear, steel-blue day.” Bass-baritone Brian Keith Johnson sang with surprisingly warm humanity in the role of Ahab. The captain’s soliloquy, “Yonder, by ever brimming goblet’s rim,” had a touch of sweet sorrow as he realizes, in Melville’s words, that he is “damned in the midst of paradise.”

Wilkins drew alert and muscular playing to accompany the singers. The Jig scene took on a sly, Shostakovich-like sarcasm, and powerful playing by the Landmarks Orchestra in the cantata’s climactic points made a strong case for this little-heard gem.

Wednesday’s marathon concert also included popular nautical-themed works by Debussy and Ravel. Both composers deplored the term “impressionism,” but it’s hard not to be taken in by the images of rolling waves and splashing sea spray that Debussy’s La Mer and Ravel’s Une Barque sur l’océan create in the mind.

Wilkins led La Mer with a broad tempo and coaxed the fine details from this colorful score. In the first movement, he lingered to allow Debussy’s surging lines to flower. The second movement’s playful themes rippled through the orchestra’s strings and winds. Wilkins drew attention to the flute calls, warm French horn chords, and gleaming trumpet fanfares without losing sight of the big picture. In the final movement, his direction was more deliberate, and he built Debussy’s richly scored masterpiece to a robust conclusion.

As in Oceana, Ravel’s Une Barque sur l’océan served as accompaniment to a short film by Emily Greenhalgh, which featured the endangered North Atlantic right whale. Ravel’s arpeggios, of course, cast images of cresting waves, yet the music complemented the poetic motion of the slow-swimming animals. As a fitting sonic backdrop, Wilkins delivered a delicate and fluid performance of Ravel’s score.

Lighter fare filled out the program. In the Allegro deciso and Allegro from Handel’s Water Music, both arranged by Hamilton Harty, the orchestra sounded with regal pomp. The young players of the Boston String Academy joined the Landmarks musicians for the main theme from Klaus Badelt’s score to Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. With verve and vitality, the combined orchestras provided a sunny diversion from the serious environmental problems explored throughout the evening.

Christopher Wilkins will lead the Boston Landmarks Orchestra in music by Beach, Chabrier, Smith, Bernstein, Tchaikovsky, and others 7 p.m. August 22 at the DCR Hatch Memorial Shell.

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