A boost of enlightened patriotism
A viewer could be forgiven for thinking that Independence Day was celebrated two months late when the Boston Landmarks Orchestra wrapped up its 2021 summer series on the Esplanade on Friday with an all-American program. Since I hadn’t downloaded the notes online to my phone, I was happy to hear Music Director Christopher Wilkins’ tale of his mix of familiar and beloved pieces with nearly forgotten works from the 19th and 20th.ecomposers of the century and a world premiere. One feature was new to me: The eloquent interpretations and gestures of an American sign language expert Christopher Robinson throughout the performance allowed the deaf members of the audience seated opposite to have fun, often swaying to the side. rhythm.[i]
Sadly I only heard the last minute from the playful opener Jubilee by George Whitefield Chadwick (1854-1931), Boston composer and former director of the New England Conservatory, whose name is inscribed on the Hatch Shell. The orchestra performed this vigorous “curtain raiser” with panache and received a very enthusiastic reception from a large audience.
Fittingly, one of Chadwick’s composition students, William Grant Still (1895-1978), known as “the dean of African-American composers,” wrote the second work. It was a shame that we only heard two of the four movements of Still’s Symphony No. 2 “Song of a New Race”. Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, renowned for the sound of its strings, created the symphony. The BLO’s own strings brought richness and warmth to the beautiful main theme of the first movement, and Wilkins captured its bittersweet, both upbeat and bluesy quality. The main actors contributed elegant solos on English horn, oboe, flute and clarinet. The scherzo of the third movement offered a slightly bawdy humor with its many melodic slides in strings and woodwinds, and the audience particularly appreciated this casual flashy. As in the first movement, Still expertly merged the harmonies and syncopations of jazz with the traditional classical symphonic form, and the performers enjoyed “wearing a different hat”.
In another logical progression, we moved on to the composer and piece that almost single-handedly put this fusion on the map: George Gershwin Rhapsody in blue. The 25-year-old composer, not yet a master of orchestration, therefore largely delegates this responsibility to Ferde Grofé for the creation on February 12, 1924. Paul Whiteman conducts his Royal Palace Orchestra with Gershwin himself at the piano. Whiteman had designed an educational program called “An Experiment in Modern Music” in which he juxtaposed jazz with classical music; Rhapsody in blue came as the penultimate job, before the closest Elgar’s The pump and the circumstances March No. 1. David F. Coleman has given an adequate but curiously realistic, largely uninflected, account of the showy and expressive piano part. Of course, he was not helped by a mix that put enough value on his instrument. The BLO musicians once again took the opportunity to show their ease in different styles: a special mention should be given to the lead clarinetist, whose opening up glissando very effectively caught the attention of the chatty audience. and defined the jazz style convincingly.
After the intermission, Wilkins and the BLO took us back to 1892 when 17-year-old Charles Ives composed his organ piece Variations on “America” for a July 4th concert in Brewster, NY. Even at this tender age, Ives exhibited the iconoclastic tendencies that ultimately characterized his career. The variations are at least as well known today in the orchestration of William Schuman, composer and former president of the Juilliard School. Wilkins’ conducting imbued Ives’ early variations with their full range of affects: cheerful but volatile in the introduction, simple and respectful in the presentation of the theme in F major (“My Country ‘Tis of Thee”), sly in the second variation (with the help of Schuman’s score), deliberately disorienting in the first two-tone interlude (in F and D flat simultaneously), mischievous in the third variation (a lively waltz in D flat), irreverent in the Polonaise in F minor of the fourth variation (Schuman’s use of the castanets, in a Polish dance, was an inspired touch!). Ives undoubtedly wanted the final variation to be a satire of insane organ virtuosity (he conducted “as fast as the pedals can go”), something impossible without an organ and a fearless organist; nonetheless, with Schuman’s creative score and expert BLO playing, it retained a delightfully insane extraversion and therefore seemed an organic extension of the previous sections.
Although Priscilla Alden Beach (1902-1970) was not related to Amy (Mrs. HHA) Beach – whose name appears on the Hatch Shell – on proof of her short symphonic poem, Trees in the city, it deserves to be discovered. Beach received his Masters in Composition from Eastman School in the mid-1920s, when European influence on Americans still reigned. If one can detect in her writing echoes of Delius, Holst and others, one especially hears a young composer establishing her own voice. The BLO and Wilkins drew an evocative sonic image characterized by lush low strings, whispering winds and rich brass, while images of the Esplanade trees over the four seasons appeared on the super bright video screens (with the courtesy of the Esplanade Association).
The two concluding books, while inspired by 19th-century rulers, spoke directly to contemporary Americans facing threats to the body politic from within and without. BLO, Christopher Wilkins, soprano Brianna J. Robinson and mezzo soprano Carrie Cheron gave the world premiere of A walk in his shoes by Francine Trester (born 1969), a Bostonian who teaches at Berklee College of Music. Each of its five sections represents a woman or a place associated with the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail, and more specifically the Dorchester neighborhood. Robinson and Cheron, who swapped out narration and vocals, proved to be very effective in both cases, stating with enough clarity that we hardly ever needed to look at the lyrics. For Geraldine “Deenie” Pindell Trotter, subject of Section One, was a well-educated, determined activist, wife of William Monroe Trotter and long-time friend of WEB Du Bois, Trester spoke of nobility and dedication. Lighter, more playful sounds in the next move portray Anna Clapp Harris Smith, the influential founder of the Animal Rescue League of Boston. A distinctive quote: “When we save animals, we also save ourselves. . . Kindness uplifts the world. The subject of the third movement, noted humanitarian Alice Stone Blackwell, daughter of famous suffragist Lucy Stone, also a steadfast female suffrage activist. The songwriter skillfully portrayed her determination, but left the end of the section hanging: perhaps a recognition that even in 2021, there is still work to be done. Going back to colonial times, Ann and Betty from the Fourth Movement refer to two slaves buried in Dorchester’s oldest cemetery. Trester conveyed uncertainty and pain here, but also comfort. To finish on a lighter note, Clapp Farm refers to “the pear of Everett Square”, perhaps the popular variety of the fruit called Clapp’s Favorite developed in Dorchester in 1849 and still sold today. It is no exaggeration to postulate that Trester uses a hybrid pear as a metaphor for the power of diversity and the American melting pot. Kudos to Trester and the musicians at BLO for presenting this compelling score with such stimulating lyrics.
The patriotic evening ended with another staple of the orchestral repertoire, Aaron Copland’s powerful hymn to our 16e President A portrait of Lincoln, for orchestra and lecturer. While providing biographical information and famous excerpts from his speeches, the work also flows with lyricism and even engages in a bit of fun – the truncated quote from Stephen Foster’s “Camptown Races” – but the overriding purpose of Portrait is to portray the greatness and heroism of Abraham Lincoln. The narrator, David C. Howse, intoned the lyrics with authority and conviction, equaling that of the musicians. At a time when the country remains more divided than anyone living can remember, this made an inspired choice to end BLO’s 2021 Esplanade series with a great job including quotes such as “.. Government of the people,” by the people, and for the people will not perish from the earth. I imagine that for many listeners, this performance was a necessary booster of confidence for the future. Received with thanks.
Geoffrey Wieting holds a BA in Organ and Latin from Oberlin College and an MA in Collaborative Piano from the New England Conservatory. He is an independent organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach. He sings with the Back Bay Chorale and serves on the board of directors of the Old West Organ Society.
[i] The editor spoke to the group of four through the offices of an ASL hearing practitioner during intermission and learned that they were completely deaf from birth. “It’s like we don’t have any ears at all,” one signed. Lee then asked, “What do you get from a gig then?” One spoke quite plaintively of her precocious memory of having felt her mother sing a lullaby in her breastbone. Another explained how the ASL performer told them stories that told their emotional impressions of the music, while also describing the instruments that were playing. The four also wore devices that produced mechanical vibrations that they could feel and flashing lights that also indicated the beat.