Boston Landmarks Orchestra and friends bring season to a lively close

August 23, 2019 at 1:49 pm

By Andrew J. Sammut

Boston Landmarks Orchestra closed its 2019 season at the Hatch Shell on Thursday with a visual assist from Boston’s MASARY Studios. Photo: Michael Dwyer

With Wednesday’s menacing weather and abrupt rescheduling behind them, Boston Landmarks Orchestra and conductor Christopher Wilkins got to close their season on Thursday at the DCR Hatch Shell with “Dance Night,” a wide-ranging and jam-packed concert of favorites, original arrangements and — as the program promised — lots of dancers. 

It was veritable kitchen sink of a finale, with composers from three centuries, two world premieres, classical form, pop vernacular, Caribbean folk, ballet turns and flamenco twirls, and summer campers joining grownups on stage. For the most part it all held together.

Manuel De Falla’s El amor brujo was both the centerpiece and standout. Andalusian flamenco moved the Spanish composer so much that a song commission turned into this Gypsy-infused ballet in twelve movements. It was a score that on Thursday absolutely catalyzed BLO, bringing out the orchestra’s full range of colors and rhythmic prowess.

This tale of a young woman haunted by her lover’s ghost began with principal trumpet Jesse Levine’s brilliant fanfare, ominous double basses and Wilkins’ suspenseful but propulsive direction. Throughout, the orchestra relished de Falla’s orchestration — deploying tense, guitar-inspired string tremolos, disquieting muted brass and ghostly gauzes of woodwinds — but without ever losing the thread of the story.

In the gently rocking “Pantomime,” where the heroine’s spectral companion tries to console her, BLO built the drama by leaning into a steady but intensifying pulse. The “Fire Ritual” segued from hazy dissonance into a subtly menacing orchestral lilt capped by Wilkins’ well-choreographed accelerando. 

Flamenco dancer Yosi Karahashi and her troupe stomped, clapped and swirled their way through El amor brujo’s scenes of terror and elation, which included exorcisms and a wedding. In the few movements with lyrics, Ann McMahon Quintero’s rich mezzo and cool delivery offered a chant-like foil for the orchestra’s more overt emotionalism.

The polar opposite of El amor brujo in terms of style and visceral energy, Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours,” from his opera La Gioconda, still inspired passion and polish from BLO. This is one of the most cited, and satirized, classical works in pop culture. Yet tight, refined textures under Wilkins’ perfectly calibrated tempos reminded that the dainty, well-known “Dawn” theme really is meant for dancing. Hearing the music alongside the graceful footwork of Boston Ballet II obliterated any thoughts of hippos in tutus or Allan Sherman parody. The cellos hummed with a restraint and mellifluousness that cut through the venue’s outdoor acoustics, and a bright, buttery can-can concluded this revealing take on an orchestral warhorse, with lovely flutes and piccolo peeking out in perfect synchronization with the dancers’ leaps. 

The first world premiere, Composer Anthony R. Green’s arrangement of the traditional Haitian song “Choucoune,” paired BLO with a string quartet of teaching artists from Green’s educational program, Castle of Our Skins, and a student contingent from the Conservatory Lab Charter School’s Dudamel Orchestra. Despite so many moving parts, this intriguing setup exuded a light-footed old world charm. The BLO’s bass lines, with some booming tuba from principal Takatsuga Hagiwara, underpinned the smaller guest orchestra’s syncopated melodies as the string quartet wove around them. Dancers from the Cambridge-based Afro-Haitian troupe, Jean Appolon Expressions, inspired a laid-back groove from the assembled instrumentalists.

By contrast, the other other world premiere, composer Gonzalo Grau’s orchestration of the Vodou hymn “Papa Loko” explored polyrhythms that never settled down. Raking güiro accents poked at the orchestral melody, which materialized in snippets of marimba, bassoon, English horn and finally a few teasing tutti segments. Behind so much rhythmic and orchestral complexity, the theme was an afterthought. The BLO’s phrasing seemed detached — understandably, perhaps, given the tricky chart and its often cerebral air — but it still clicked with the Appolon dancers’ powerful gestures.

With no dancers to accompany, the orchestra took a relaxed approach to a pair of excerpts from Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1. Price’s music is enjoying welcome attention around the country, and this work — well represented by BLO on Thursday — reflects her synthesis of African American idioms she heard growing up and teaching in the American south.

The symphony’s third movement “Juba Dance” incorporates the antebellum African American dance, which Wilkins approached with a modest pace resulting in an easygoing swagger. The BLO handled this section and the fourth movement “Finale” with the airy transparency of a ragtime band; reedy woodwind textures combined with chiming violins over snare drum patter proved especially authentic. In the “Finale,” the two-beat pulse under the violins’ triple meter, a blues-inflected second theme, and cross-accents from the lower brass all highlighted this orchestra’s cohesion.

Hungarian-inspired works from the classical canon bookended the program and came off with mixed results. Brahms’ Hungarian Dances No. 5 and No. 6 began the concert with massaged lines and careful phrasing, although Wilkins at some points seemed to be pushing the just-warming-up orchestra to find a higher gear.

Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 concluded the evening on a more incisive note. The dark, bold opening, with lower strings buzzing underneath and then plunging into the well-known theme, breathed like an established folk artist taking their time coming onstage. Principal clarinetist Jan Halloran’s runs came off with soulful intensity, not as mere decoration. The famous uptempo friska second section exhibited whimsy without bombast, and the melody shone through even as the rhythm surged ahead. 

Young vocalists, instrumentalists and dancers from Camp Harbor View also joined the BLO to perform Full Circle, an original piece co-written for the campers by oboist and composer Jake Gunnar Walsh and teaching artist Devin Ferreira, with choreography by Chanel Thompson. Funk beats, Motown-style brass hits and hip-hop bass vamps demonstrated this orchestra’s range as well as openness to genre and partnerships.

An Arthur Fiedler favorite, Fiddle Faddle, by Leroy Anderson, provided a fast-paced but informal encore and a chance for all the dancers to perform together. Multicolored projections on the bandshell from MASARY Studios added yet another touch to this populous season closer.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Boston Landmarks Orchestra and friends bring season to a lively close”

  1. Posted Aug 23, 2019 at 2:14 pm by Robert Schulz

    Hi, thank you for another thoughtful review of the Boston Landmarks Orchestra. I wanted to offer two corrections, neither of which were any fault of yours. Because of the rain delayed performance, both our principal trumpet and tuba players were sight-reading substitutes. All the better to give them the shout out they deserve: Jesse Levine, trumpet and Takatsugu Hagiwara, tuba.

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