Landmarks Orchestra kicks off summer season with space-inspired program

July 18, 2019 at 1:44 pm

By Andrew J. Sammut

Christopher Wilkins conducted the Boston Landmarks Orchestra's opening concert Wednesday night at Jordan Hall.

Christopher Wilkins conducted the Boston Landmarks Orchestra’s opening concert Wednesday night at Jordan Hall. Photo: Michael Dwyer

Boston Landmarks Orchestra opened its season Wednesday night by celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first lunar landing. “Symphonic Space Odyssey” at NEC’s Jordan Hall featured an eclectic selection of contemporary works and film scores, mostly by American composers, evoking the moon and beyond.

Unfortunately, thunderstorms forced a change of venue from the DCR Hatch Shell, so this skyward program had to be experienced indoors. Images of the solar system prepared by the Museum of Science’s Hayden Planetarium were shown on monitors, but these visuals would have likely been more impressive on the larger screens outside.

As music director Christopher Wilkins pointed out, however, Jordan Hall is a “pretty good ‘Plan B.’” The professionals onstage sounded anything but fazed.

The ensemble made an exciting opening fanfare of John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine. This work was inspired by the composer’s thrilling but frightening ride in a Lamborghini. The rhythms started out gooey but unrelenting motivic patterns and transforming textures soon coalesced into a steady drive and bright sheen.

Starting the “family-friendly” evening with minimalism and following it with a relaxed melody from Leroy Anderson, the godfather of light concert music, was quite a shift. While the weather kept audiences from appreciating Anderson’s Summer Skies in the titular element, the BLO’s creamy strings captured that atmosphere without seeming sappy. Wilkins approached its modest scale and earnest sentiment with clarity and respectful pacing.

In another stylistic swerve, Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra) showcased both the BLO’s sound and their portrayal of the struggle between humanity and nature. That unresolvable tension suffuses this tone poem inspired by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s book of the same name.

The famous sunrise opening representing the dawn of mankind spoke for itself, while Wilkins carefully shaped the succeeding “Of the Backworldsmen.” Here and throughout the 30-minute epic, phrases lingered just long enough without turning self-absorbed or losing momentum. The three-note motif representing nature returned in various configurations but always with a sense of foreboding confidence.

A pensive fugue unwound in “Of Science and Learning.” Well-coordinated dynamic extremes choreographed mankind’s struggle to overcome nature in “The Convalescent.” Wilkins slowed things to a crawl before racing into the “Dance Song”—with prominent warm strings—without letting things feel labored. Zarathustra ends with a shimmering B major chord representing humanity pitted against a low pluck on a unison C. The BLO’s precision reinforced the idea that these two forces ultimately never meet, no matter how close they come to one another.

While Strauss covered journeys within mankind’s soul, an abridged version of Rodrigo’s A la Busca del más Allá (In Search of the Beyond) opened the second half focused on literal exploration. Inspired by the Spanish composer’s visit to a NASA base, it never settles in tonality or mood. Chromaticism and instrumental effects such as cool woodwinds and mysterious glockenspiel arpeggios convey the inscrutability of the cosmos. With the BLO speaking in dense clusters, Wilkins suspended the sense of time. Long stretches of sustained chords stood charged for the next step.

This intense, at times eerie sensation made Dvořák’s “Song to the Moon” seem like an exhalation. The aria from the Czech composer’s opera Rusalka finds the protagonist asking the moon to call for her beloved (rather than welcome astronauts). Singing an English translation, soprano Sigourney Cook’s long rounded lines alongside the BLO’s lush accompaniment provided welcome emotional reprieve.

Not to keep things too peaceful, John Williams’ title music from Close Encounters of the Third Kind highlighted the popular film composer’s skill with dissonance and disturbing timbres. Screeching, swarming strings burst into a tutti that literally made listeners jump in their seats. Wilkins teased out an already gradual resolution and then let it pour forward. The recurring five-note theme developed gracefully even amidst slashing brass and percussion.

From America’s most popular film composer to another equally popular and more critically acclaimed composer, Philip Glass. An excerpt from Glass’s soundtrack for the movie Icarus at the Edge of Time featured the composer’s insistent swirling cells, here with brass accents and more consonant harmonies.

The film retells the Icarus myth in a sci-fi setting aimed at children, but this musical excerpt showcased the BLO principals: Allison Parramore’s piccolo weaving around the ensemble, timpanist Jeffrey Fischer rolling underneath, a four-person percussion section like a steel mill, principal trumpet Dana Oakes with a lip-busting lead over the violins and the sheer bite of eleven horns, trombones and tubas.

A medley of lunar-inspired American standards sung by big band singer Michael Andrew closing the night and released all the tension. 

Andrew’s honeyed croon, clear diction and easygoing rhythm were a natural fit for “In the Still of the Night,” with kudos to bass player Anthony D’Amico and drummer Robert Schulz for swinging a 90-piece orchestra. Wilkins kept up a danceable slow tempo for “Moon River” that kept its flow while illuminating lovely string backups. Quincy Jones’ famous arrangement of “Fly Me to the Moon” for Frank Sinatra with the Count Basie band provided an uplifting finale.

BLO will present a program of African American spirituals with the One City Choir, Coro Allegro and the New England Spiritual Ensemble 7 p.m. July 31 at the DCR Hatch Shell. landmarksorchestra.org; 617-987-2000

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