Ever since Charles Ansbacher founded the Boston Landmarks Orchestra, in 2001, this essential summer institution has succeeded in wrapping smiling and diverse audiences around its seriously lively concerts. Today there’s no doubting the authenticity of successor artistic director Christopher Wilkins’s desires to share the musics of the world with the audiences of various ’hoods, albeit in comfortable orchestral dress and always with some familiar canonic masterpieces.
Two years of BLmO silence ended as the strains of 28 Landmarks strings broke forth at Bethel AME Church on Friday and Arlington Street Church on Sunday. Wilkins highlighted how seven of eight of the day’s composers were nonwhite, and went on to explain on Sunday how the program “Lift Every Voice” befit the longstanding social mission of Arlington Street — advocates for abolition in the 19th century and for Black lives today.
Every work on the season opener seemingly imported forms from beyond the times of the composers or adapted them from sources outside the classical canon. Often this worked … as long as one placed diversity of content over authenticity of form … which is okay by me if you can carry it off.
In placing his string orchestra(s) within an oasis of repose rather than a bustling Esplanade, he could patiently unfold Vaughan Williams’s Phrygian but warm Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. Wilkins shaped a stately and compelling arc that never let go its dramatic tension, and surprised us by placing the required antiphonal string quartet in the church’s organ loft. Even though buried among plush box pews, with only five individuals visible, the players in the main ensemble achieved satisfyingly burnished masses of tone. The pizzi in the lower strings resonated emphatically, and the tremolos from the upper strings never grated. Wilkins’s respectful yet compellingly eloquent traversal reminded us of our place in almost 400 years continuum of musical culture.
Why did Wilkins not choose to open with the next number, the “Negro National Anthem” Lift Every Voice and Sing. Did he notice that its composer J. Rosamond Johnson’s life (1873-1954) overlapped RVW’s almost exactly? The spirited playing of William Grant Still’s arrangement induced this writer to bellow J.W. Johnson’s verses without any cajoling from the conductor.
Not at all without honor in his own time, Still seems to be showing up on programs more often in the last decade than in the previous few; we were interested to learn of his Hollywood-arranger connection. Danzas de Panama filled the sacred space with seriously suave, if restrained, danciness that never galumphed. The Tamborito ended with the most delicious portamento. Cumbi y Congo, livelier and merrier, cavorted about as well as a pops orchestra can, depending on safety in numbers.
Composer Clarise Assad (b.1978, the year Still died), sibling of the somewhat better-known Assad brothers guitar duo, contributed Fusion: Danca Brasileira from her larger Impressions. She succeeded in adapting the Brazilian rhythms to string orchestra without entirely vitiating their ballroom appeal. Astaire and Rogers would have loved it, though we nominate the Nicholas brothers.
Wilkins celebrated composer Aldemaro Romero’s (1928 – 2007) versatility at embracing world music within classical forms, referring to Fuga con Pajarillo as “Bach on Saturday Night.” The work, sure enough, did build a straight fugue before morphing into Jazz Bach and motoric Vivaldi thrumming. At times it evoked donkey-braying and chicken-pecking within gently swaying patterns. The extended fugal coda again evoked the earlier masters.
Strum, by Jessie Montgomery (b.1981), brought the ad hoc solo quartet up front. Their added emotional advocacy (lively movement and facial expressions too) made us take notice. And when the full orchestra expanded the volume, they eventually reached a full-throated strumming indeed redolent, perhaps, of Bachianas Brazileiras.
Delights and Dances, the title of the closer by Michael Abels (b.1962), could have served to name the entire concert. Weaving strands of blues, bluegrass and improvisation, it “really gets down,” according to Wilkins. A subdued dialog between solos cellist Francesca McNeely and violist Jason Amos set up our expectations. Somewhat relentless pizzi from the orchestra invited the solo quartet to dance, and they did so with exhilaration. Expert fiddling from violinists Annie Rabbat and Jannina Norpoth ensued. The alternation of the blues with bluegrass, probably not by coincidence, set up the planned encore. Let’s chalk that up to Wilkins’s programmatic legerdemain.
In Finale (The Dargason) from his St. Paul Suite, Gustav Holst combined the poignant Greensleeves with lively, earwormish 17th-century dance tunes as Abels had with yins and yangs of blues and bluegrass. Wilkins led the strings in a bucolic account. We almost didn’t miss the saxophone opening of the band version. I bet it would work well at the Hatch Shell.
The season opens there August 4th with “Beethoven’s Fifth & American Icons.”
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer