Under Music Director Christopher Wilkins, BLmO celebrates its 20th-anniversary season with live orchestral music on the Esplanade beginning Wednesday at 7:00. The six-week concert series showcases a diversity of music and cultures while delivering authentic musical and community partnerships. Rooting for uniquely American music, Wilkins will feature composers such as Jessie Montgomery, John Philip Sousa, Nkeiru Okoye, Aaron Copland, William Grant Still, Florence Price, Omar Thomas, J. Rosamond Johnson, Duke Ellington, and more. Music from Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela light up the summer nights, alongside masterworks such as Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
Our frank and in-depth discussion with Wilkins begins with his hopes and dreams rather than concert previews…the latter, of course follows.
FLE: You work so hard to reach out to the Black community, and you’re very successful in terms of getting performing groups and individuals to participate. So I was astonished to see so few Black audience members at the Bethel AME Church in Roxbury last week. What’s the problem? Are you overestimating the extent to which Black people want to hear their own music in the form in which you play it?
CW: A couple of years ago, I might have said that’s a fair assessment. But now I’m recognizing more the systemic nature of the problem. That’s true in so many fields, but my god with orchestras, it’s just a series of overlapping, self-reinforcing loops that go on and on. We have self-reinforcing loops occurring with orchestra personnel, repertoire, marketing, audience expectations, who gets invited, who feels welcome…
I strongly believe that we have to disrupt these patterns. Let’s take one example: the assumption that in order to attract audiences, you have to program music people already know. The axiom is that if you play music no one’s heard of, audiences won’t show up. Therefore, we put the likes of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky on every program. Huge numbers of worthy works are rejected, or at best crowded out, in favor of better-known works. And that means they can never reach the status of “familiar repertoire.” Only works that are frequently heard can be frequently heard. It is an absurdity.
Or how about the wish to diversify orchestra personnel. This has been discussed for years and years. But finally, a concerted national effort is beginning to make a difference. The Detroit-based Sphinx organization supports a program called the National Alliance for Audition Support (NAAS), which helps train and support musicians of color who want to participate in orchestral auditions nationwide. NAAS helps aspirants develop the skills and experience required to be successful, and also has a pool of money to support travel to auditions. The Landmarks Orchestra participated in this national process this spring. And already this summer, a number of musicians who were successful in those auditions will be performing with us.
I think many of us have only just begun to realize all the ways in which the traditional audition process creates barriers of exclusivity. To far too great an extent, in order to be successful, you have to belong to the “boys club,” knowing in advance what audition committees are listening for. And the best way to know that, is to study with the people who are judging on the other side of the audition screen. Another self-reinforcing loop. It tends to be the same around the country.
We just have to attack it at all levels. I’m not discouraged. I think we’ve made important inroads, and we’re learning a lot as we go.
Your string orchestra program at last week’s church concerts got the proportions right, where seven of eight composers were non-white. But how much of the failure to attract substantial numbers of Black audience is your filtering of that Black-composed music through middle-of-the-road arrangements? If Duke Ellington came back and played at the AME Church next week, people would be knocking the door down to get in from within that same neighborhood that showed indifference.
And while I have the floor here, I was going to ask you if you are aware that when the BSO players were negotiating their Covid contract in which they were being asked to take substantial pay cuts, one of the things that they insisted on being written into the contract was assistance to Black musicians in preparing for auditions with the BSO. The union insisted on that, even in a time of sacrifice. Is the Boston Musicians Union enthusiastically participating in these initiatives?
Yes, the Boston Musicians Association has been very supportive. And importantly, they have established an anti-racism committee to look at these questions from all angles. The committee is chaired by a member of the Landmarks Orchestra, Ashleigh Gordon. We have exchanged a number of useful ideas with that committee. And yes, I am also aware of the BSO program; it’s something like what Sphinx is doing, but in their own way. That is great to see. But the BSO also started Project Step 40 years ago, which has had a significant impact.
Barring radical transformation of music education in the schools, you think the only way to build audiences in Black communities is having Black players?
And Black partners and collaborators at all levels. Collaborations have an additional value in that they often bring us a perspective we don’t otherwise have. We have worked, for example with guest ensembles, dance companies, jazz combos, vocal ensembles, and dance partners, all of whom have brought something new. Then there are the youth organizations: Boys and Girls Clubs, Conservatory Lab Charter School, Mattapan Teen Center, Grooversity, Boston String Academy, Zumix, Camp Harbor View… all of these involve significant numbers of Black and Latinx kids, and therefore attract attention and attendance by audiences of color. This type of programming has a big impact on the makeup of attendees in general. It’s never-fail. Our audience members comment on it all the time. Audiences are motivated by personal connections to the performers, no question.
And it’s not just the parents and siblings of those individuals?
Of course, it is that…and friends, and neighbors, and teachers, and Little League coaches, and people they go to church with… When we first started the One City Choir, we heavily recruited in Black churches. At the first rehearsal, we had about two hundred people show up. But only three or four of them were Black. And after all that effort, in all twenty-four Boston neighborhoods, I asked my colleague Myran Parker-Brass, “Why is this such a struggle?” She said, “Well, look at what you programmed.” And I said, “Copland Old American Songs? But they should have a universal appeal. They are so recognizable: ‘Simple Gifts,’ ‘I Bought Me a Cat.’” But what she meant was that Copland is a composer associated with the very thing we’re trying to change, and that the Hatch Shell maybe conjures up the same image: Boston Brahmins. In other words, we hadn’t really created the right kind of appeal.
So over time, we have started to approach it differently. We’ve been performing more music that would be familiar to musicians in the Black church; we’ve done quite a lot with the spirituals; our choir director David Coleman, has suggested works more familiar to gospel choirs. We need to keep it going and growing, but it’s been a good shift.
Maybe you can commission some pieces for gospel choir and orchestra.
We do that in Akron, and it’s wonderful. We have assembled that choir since 1994.
What’s the distribution of the population in Akron?
In that part of Ohio, it’s about 12% Black, whereas in Akron proper it’s 30%. And our gospel choir is about 80% Black and 200 voices strong. So as an official arm of the Akron Symphony, it’s a powerful resource. But again, does it mean that our representation at typical classical concerts is better? It’s marginally better, but the same dynamics apply. What are we playing? Who’s on stage? Who are we partnering with? Will anyone in the audience have a personal connection with what’s going on onstage?
You can’t lose sight of the fact that only 10% of middle-class white people like classical music, and it’s 10% of a smaller number of Black people who dig it. These facts are hardly going to produce huge numbers.
It’s still is an elite art, and that is not a pejorative. It may be socially elite—too much so—but it’s also sometimes seen to be intellectually elite. It’s connected to history and foreign languages. It can be challenging to listen to. It doesn’t meet you halfway. You often have to work to find a path to get close to these great pieces. But it’s exactly that layered complexity that makes it so rich and exciting and worthwhile.
You’re stubbornly determined to make this happen. The string orchestra concert that I reviewed at Arlington Street Church last week had only single work by a white composer out of seven works total.
This summer about half the works are by composers of color. So yes, we’re making a concerted effort. I think the best news is that these are really exciting programs. They’re varied, and as I said at the Arlington Street Church concert, a lot of them draw on aspects of American vernacular music that people are comfortable with. It’s familiar territory for just about everyone. People immediately recognize these familiar American idioms.
Onto some of the highlights of this summer’s Hatch Shell concerts.
I very much admire the soprano soloist on your opening night program—I have also hired Sirgourney Cook. She had the very difficult role of replacing the beloved Robert Honeysucker in a Palm Sunday Concert-Meditation I manage at St. Mary’s Church in Charlestown. In evoking Jesus’s suffering in a way a general audience might understand, I had Robert alternate spirituals with Bach. Imagine hearing Ich ruf zu Dir followed by “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord.”? What could work better for the sentiments of that church season?
No one can sing with deeper emotional projection than Robert Honeysucker did. But Sirgourney, who studied with Honeysucker, also packs a wallop. Two years ago, in addition to her spiritual set, alternating with Bach and Brahms chorale preludes on the piano, she led “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and finished the program with the stirring “Regina Coeli” from Cavalleria Rusticana. What a voice. I can’t wait to hear her in the Landmarks opener, “Beethoven’s Fifth & American Icons” on August 4th.
Sirgourney Cook’s spirituals set will undoubtedly be a highlight of our season. The concert begins with Gershwin’s Overture to Strike Up the Band, and ends with the Landmarks Orchestra’s first performance of the Beethoven Fifth in many years. In between the Gershwin and the Beethoven, we have four works by Black composers that represent a short traversal of styles of Black music that have helped shape the sound of American music. These include Florence Price’s Concert Overture No. 2 and James P. Johnson’s tone poem, Drums.
The Beethoven Fifth is one of classical music’s iconic dramas, moving from darkness to light, turmoil to euphoria. In the 19th century it was understood as an archetypal “form,” meaning not so much a structure made up of sections, but rather an overall narrative shape. In a similar way, the story of Romeo and Juliet has a distinctive narrative form. Beethoven’s Fifth takes the shape of a French rescue opera, a genre that influenced Beethoven greatly. That progression toward liberation and catharsis is why this symphony fits our moment so perfectly.
And then next week come Rachmaninoff and Ellington. I wonder if they ever met at the Cotton Club.
Rachmaninoff at the Cotton Club! I can absolutely imagine it.
This is our annual program featuring dance. Because of our inability to be physically present in schools and camps this summer, we can’t continue many of our annual partnerships right now. But on the dance program we can. We’re working with four professional companies: Urbanity Dance, Public Displays of Motion, Jean Appolon Expressions, and Boston Ballet, featuring soloist Chyrstyn Mariah Fentroy.
Two themes are prominent on our dance program: inclusion and wellness.
It will be the first time we’ve worked with Urbanity Dance, though we’ve wanted to for years. One thing Landmarks and Urbanity share is a desire to motivate participation from people of all backgrounds, ages, social strata, and races, in order to bring down all barriers to access. In this case, we will also be partnering with their Dance with Parkinson’s program, which has both performance and therapeutic goals. The company will dance to the intoxicating, widely performed, Danzón No. 2 by Arturo Márquez. I’m very happy to say that one of our favorite youth ensembles, Boston String Academy, will join us on stage for that.
We took notice with considerable pride that the League of American Orchestras counted the Danzón as the single most often performed work by American orchestras a couple of years ago. Surprising maybe that it should be a work by a Latinx composer. But true!
Then to the final work on the program. Peter DiMuro and Jean Appolon are creating choreography for Duke Ellington’s ballet, The River, a work originally created for Alvin Ailey and American Ballet Theatre. The River describes the course of a human life, as if it were a flowing stream. It’s a great orchestral piece, and a perfect canvas for Peter and Jean’s choreography. Peter has recently curated a series of short pieces he calls Postcards from the Front—virtual performances pairing his dancers with front line workers. These are doctors, nurses, restaurant workers, Peter’s bartender, and people working in other service industries. Jean Appolon (JAE Expressions) has created work for several years now on the subject of mental health. Both in Boston and in his native Haiti, he has taken a great interest in changing lives through movement and expression.
The following Wednesday, August 18th, is a two-fer, isn’t it?
It is. We’re delighted that two of our favorite guest orchestras are able to appear on our series, and that they have chosen to share the program. The Longwood Symphony —the orchestra of Boston’s medical community—is offering three classics under the direction of their Music Director, Ronald Feldman: Bach, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky. And Music Director Channing Yu and the Mercury Orchestra perform two highly descriptive and virtuosic works, Copland’s El salón México and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade.
And then on August 25, you have something we’ve never seen from Landmarks before, a concert for symphonic winds. Did you want to give the string players a rest, or how did this come about?
Actually, we have Covid 19 to thank for this idea. Originally, we weren’t sure we could have a series at the Hatch Shell at all. Because the Esplanade is state-owned property, approval has to be granted at a number of levels. In addition, we were thinking it might be necessary to reduce the number of players on stage, so that we could socially distance. So, the original plan was to perform on private property like churches, and to divide the orchestra in half: strings, and then everyone else. Essentially two groups of about thirty-five musicians.
If you remove the strings from a symphony orchestra, and add a few saxophones and some extra brass, you get a concert band. What’s especially exciting for us is that a band of this quality is actually a very rare thing. I don’t know how many of our winds have ever played in a professional band. I would guess that quite a number have not. We wind players all grew up playing in bands in high school and college. I myself loved my time playing with the Massachusetts Youth Wind Ensemble, under Frank Battisti. But a top-notch professional band? Those are rare. In America they hardly exist outside of the service bands.
And finally on September 1st, you end the way you began, with a look at American music and American identity. You have a couple of works that are extremely well known, and a couple that are hardly known at all. You are also giving the premiere of a work you commissioned last season.
It’s a program we’re calling American Portraits, because of exactly what you said: the exploration of American identity. I wanted these American portraits to include not just the well-known and well-loved—works like Rhapsody in Blue and Lincoln Portrait—but also significant music by two giants who have been unjustifiably neglected, one white, one Black: George Chadwick and William Grant Still. There are two works by women: Smith College graduate Priscilla Alden Beach’s City Trees, and a work by Berklee College Professor Francine Trester. Francine wrote a lovely setting of the American hymn At the River for the Landmarks Orchestra a few years ago. Her vocal writing is so felicitous. We immediately expressed interest in working with her again. Last year’s centennial of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment—granting women the right to vote—gave us the chance to work together again. Her work is a tribute to the city’s history and historic places, and to five women who contributed to that history. Francine conceived her piece in partnership with the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail, but not surprisingly the premiere had to be delayed a year.
So tell me what happened to William Grant Still because, in his lifetime, it seems as though he was getting a lot of performances. And then he just sort of faded away. Maybe all composers are subject to that fade-and-renew cycle.
A possible answer comes from Joseph Horowitz’s wonderful piece for The American Scholar about William Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony. There were three symphonies by Black American composers that received prominent premieres in rapid succession in the 1930’s. William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony was premiered by the Rochester Philharmonic in 1931. Then Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1 was given its first performance by Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony in 1933. And finally, William Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony was premiered by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1934. These were prominent public concerts, and the works were received with tremendous enthusiasm. They were performances by America’s top orchestras and most celebrated conductors. So the question is, as you say, what happened? These symphonies were composed in the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance, just as Black art work and artists were thriving in other fields. But in the orchestral world, the momentum stopped. Over the next ninety years, the music performed by orchestras has reverted to being white… very white.
Joe Horowitz’s thesis is that there was a basis against the vernacular in music. Too much folk material of any type meant that a piece was “undercomposed,” to use Aaron Copland’s word.
You mean Darmstadt syndrome?
Well yes, to take it to the extreme. Influential critics, other composers, conductors, and orchestra administrators, objected to the idea of popular music being wrapped in sacred orchestral vestments. This is Horowitz’s thesis anyway. But I am not so sure. Look at where Copland went: soon after he did cowboy songs, the Shaker hymn, folk material, and pseudo-folk material.
That was his WPA patriotic reaction to his more advanced earlier stuff.
After the depression, everybody became more populist. They didn’t want to be regarded as elite. But given all that, it’s hard not to reach the conclusion that what was fine for white composers was not so acceptable for Black composers.
So what happened?
Racism must have played a huge part. How else do you explain it? Some of this racism just has to do with self- identification. Orchestras have never self-identified with music that has Black blood in its core, even though that same music is built of musical material that is much more familiar to everyday Americans than most orchestral music of the 20th century. Or I should say, if Black composers draw on the spirituals, the blues, R & B, gospel, or rock and roll, it tends to be comfortable terrain for most American listeners. But that same lineage throws their work into the non-serious realm—inappropriate, traditionally speaking. for orchestras.
William Grant Still wanted to represent the Black experience in his music. He drew on exactly these sources, and his music is for the most part extremely and immediately appealing. On September 1, we’re doing two terrific movements from his Second Symphony, “Song of a New Race.” I love the whole symphony. I love all of his symphonies. And what’s exciting is that I hadn’t really known them. I knew the Afro-American Symphony, but I didn’t know the others. Now I know them better. Wonderful stuff. Every time I perform William Grant Still, I find myself—and the musicians—remarking on how well written it is.
Then there’s the English Black composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor who wrote the Longfellow Song of Hiawatha oratorio.
Yes, which I have also performed. Great fun.
Yes. We’re doing his Danse nègre this summer. He was the most successful and most popular Black composer in the world. When he came to Chicago—as he did, and met Florence Price there—it was always a major event. NANM, the National Association of Negro Musicians, was especially important in helping music by Black composers become better known, including the works of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.
I wonder what the audiences looked like then.
I don’t really know. The Florence Price Symphony No. 1 was performed by the Chicago Symphony, but not on a subscription concert; it was at the Century of Progress Exposition, the 1933 World’s Fair. It marked the first time a large-scale work by a Black woman was performed by a major American orchestra. The concert also featured Margaret Bonds as piano soloist, who thereby became the first Black instrumentalist to appear with the Chicago Symphony. It was clearly an historic occasion for Black Chicagoans. It seems to have been a mixed audience in attendance to some degree. Rae Linda Brown, in her excellent Price biography, writes that “interracial committees of the city not only helped to promote the concert but were very busy organizing post-concert parties.” It was clearly an important cultural occasion in the Black community. And there were many prominent white audience members as well, including Adlai Stevenson and George Gershwin.
BEETHOVEN’S FIFTH & AMERICAN ICONS
August 4, 2021, 7pm ET | Hatch Shell
Boston Landmarks Orchestra, Christopher Wilkins, conductor
Sirgourney Cook, soprano
Adrian Anantawan, violin
Ludwig van Beethoven Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67
George Gershwin Strike Up the Band Overture
Florence Price Concert Overture No. 2
William Grant Still Spirituals: A Medley
Nkeiru Okoye I am Harriet Tubman, Free Woman
James P. Johnson Drums
Jules Massenet Thaïs: Méditation
Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony begins with the most famous notes in history. The symphony moves from despair to joy as if tracing a “hero’s journey.” In America, the journey of Black artists has shaped our national sound. American music grew from the spirituals, blues, R&B, and the dance tunes George Gershwin heard in Harlem.
RACHMANINOFF TO ELLINGTON: MUSIC & HEALING
August 11, 2021, 7pm ET | Hatch Shell
Boston Landmarks Orchestra, Christopher Wilkins, conductor
Boston Ballet II
Boston String Academy
Jean Appolon Expressions
Peter DiMuro/Public Displays of Motion
Sergei Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances
Bedřich Smetana Dance of the Comedians from Bartered Bride
Camille Saint-Saëns The Swan from Carnival of the Animals
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Danse nègre
Duke Ellington The River
Arturo Márquez Danzón No. 2
Partners from Boston’s dance community explore connections between music, movement, and well-being. Ellington’s “river ballet” portrays human life, flowing from its source to the ocean beyond. Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances rock and sway with unbounded vitality in the composer’s final orchestral work.
Choreographer Peter DiMuro/Public Displays of Motion (PDM) will bring his “Postcards From the Front” to the Hatch Shell stage. This piece pairs the recorded experiences of those on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic with the movement responses of PDM collaborators. Joining Landmarks for the first time is Urbanity Dance, showcasing one of their signature programs “Dance with Parkinson’s.”
Bach and Beethoven
Longwood Symphony Orchestra & Mercury Orchestra
August 18, 2021, 7pm ET | Hatch Shell
Ronald Feldman, Music Director, Longwood Symphony Orchestra
Channing Yu, Music Director, Mercury Orchestra
Ludwig van Beethoven Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36
Johann Sebastian Bach Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, BWV 1043
Aaron Copland El salón México
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov Sheherazade
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin: Polonaise
Two of our favorite collaborators, Longwood Symphony Orchestra and Mercury Orchestra, share a program of orchestra favorites including works by Bach, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky.
AMAZING GRACE & SOUSA MARCHES
LANDMARKS ORCHESTRA SYMPHONIC WINDS
August 25, 2021, 7pm ET | Hatch Shell
Boston Landmarks Orchestra, Christopher Wilkins, conductor
John Philip Sousa The Free Lance
John Philip Sousa Semper Fidelis
Gustav Holst Second Suite for Military Band
Steven Stucky Funeral Music for Queen Mary (after Henry Purcell)
Omar Thomas Come Sunday
Ralph Vaughan Williams Folk Song Suite
William Grant Still Animato: Humor (from Afro-American Symphony)
Frank Ticheli Amazing Grace
The Landmarks Orchestra forms a concert band for the first time. Beginning with English masterpieces, the music moves across the pond to the States. In addition to well-loved Sousa marches, American influences range from jazz to “Amazing Grace.” Composer Omar Thomas’ Come Sunday marks the central role of the Hammond organ in the Black church.
RHAPSODY IN BLUE & AMERICAN PORTRAITS
September 1, 2021, 7pm ET | Hatch Shell
Boston Landmarks Orchestra, Christopher Wilkins, conductor
Brianna Robinson, soprano
Carrie Cheron, mezzo-soprano
David Coleman, piano
George Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue
Aaron Copland Lincoln Portrait
George Chadwick Jubilee from Symphonic Sketches
William Grant Still Symphony No. 2 ‘Song of a New Race’
Priscilla Alden Beach City Trees
Francine Trester A Walk in Her Shoes (World Premiere)
Rhapsody in Blue has captivated listeners since its premiere nearly a century ago. Audiences still love it for its freshness and fusion of styles. Copland’s Lincoln Portrait accompanies some of Lincoln’s best-known speeches, including the Gettysburg Address. The world premiere of Francine Trester’s A Walk in her Shoes conjures the memory of key women in our city’s history.
About Boston Landmarks Orchestra
Boston Landmarks Orchestra was founded in 2001 by conductor and community advocate Charles Ansbacher. The orchestra is comprised of many of the area’s finest professional musicians. In its earliest years, the orchestra performed in such historically important settings as Fenway Park, the USS CONSTITUTION pier, Jamaica Pond, Franklin Park, Copley Square, Boston Common, and other landmark locations. Since 2007, its principal home has been at the DCR’s Hatch Memorial Shell. For more history visit landmarksorchestra.org.
Major funders of Boston Landmarks Orchestra include the Free for All Concert Fund, The Boston Foundation, Encore Boston Harbor, Liberty Mutual and the Klarman Foundation. These programs are supported in part by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, Massachusetts Cultural Council, the League of American Orchestras, and the Boston Cultural Council, a local agency which is funded by the Massachusetts Cultural Council and administered by the Mayor’s Office of Arts + Culture for the City of Boston. WCVB-TV is a proud media sponsor.