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Christopher Wilkins’ Summer Blog- O’er the Land of the Free

August 25, 2014

The Boston Landmarks Orchestra’s final concert of the summer at the DCR’s Hatch Shell will take place on Wednesday, August 27 at 7 PM. The program celebrates the bicentennial of The Star-Spangled Banner. Here are a few words from Music Director Christopher Wilkins.



This summer the Landmarks Orchestra has featured music by four American composers active at the turn of the last century: Dudley Buck (b. 1839), Edward MacDowell (b. 1860), Charles Ives (b. 1874), and R. Nathaniel Dett (b. 1882). All made important contributions to American art song, choral literature, and music for organ. They are among the most prominent figures of their time, and they all had a significant impact on the musical life of Boston.All but Ives lived here.

Dudley Buck’s first great success came with his Festival Hymn “Peace and Music,” composed for the World’s Peace Jubilee in the Back Bay in 1872. Famed bandmaster Patrick Gilmore commissioned the work and conducted it. Four years later, Gilmore commissioned another work by Buck for a 4th of July celebration, his Festival Overture on the American National Air. Buck chose to use The Star-Spangled Banner as a secondary theme in his overture, though the song would not become America’s national anthem until 1931.

The tune of our national anthem – not the text – was written by English harpsichordist John Stafford Smith. It served as the anthem of the Anacreontic Society, a music and supper club in London featuring performances of instrumental and vocal music. The fact that it is challenging to sing is not a coincidence. “The Anacreontic Song” was designed to display the abilities of professional singers. It was performed immediately following dinner at every meeting, and it invariably impressed the crowd. [N.B. For more information about all things Star-Spangled Banner, visit the fascinating website of a not-for-profit run by Dr. Mark Clague:]

1814 was a pivotal year for Ludwig van Beethoven. It marked the end of the middle or “heroic” period of his creative life. He made his last public appearance as a solo pianist in 1814, in a performance of the “Archduke” Trio. And a new production of his 1805 opera Fidelio – originally named Leonore – was mounted, in part to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon (an historical fact that had a great impact on America’s War of 1812). For the 1814 revival, Beethoven made substantial revisions to his only opera in order, as he put it, “to rebuild the ruins of an old castle.” Beethoven’s fourth attempt to create an overture for his opera yielded a work drastically different from the previous efforts. Compared to the first three, known as Leonore Overtures Nos. 2, 3, and 1 (now confirmed to have been composed in that order), the Fidelio Overture is more compact in form and brighter in spirit. It is not a large-scale summary of the drama to follow, as the earlier overtures had been, but rather a succinct and energetic “curtain raiser.”

Something of the same driving energy and compactness of form is present in the Eighth Symphony. There is no introduction or any systematic unfolding of the musical material as there had been in all of Beethoven’s previous symphonies. Rather, “the music takes off like a house afire,” in the words of Michael Steinberg. Most of the symphony’s themes are short – just a few notes – and so are the phrases, causing the music’s character to shift rapidly and often. The second movement begins by quoting a canon Beethoven had composed as a musical jest for his friend, Maelzel, the inventor of the metronome. It is a lesson in what a great composer can do with minimal material, in this case a one-note idea: tik tik tik tik… The third movement is Beethoven’s only symphonic minuet, perhaps a tribute to his teacher of many years earlier, Joseph Haydn. The finale is a burst of vigor and invention, challenging its performers with some of the most rapid figuration of any music ever composed. In the coda, surprising “wrong notes” are pounded out emphatically, and responded to with endless ingenuity and wit.

Charles Ives composed his Variations on “America” as a teenager. Originally scored for solo organ, the work was unknown to William Schuman until he heard it performed at a concert dedicating the new organ at Lincoln Center in 1962. “I knew that I simply had to transcribe it,” he wrote. His orchestration captures the mock-serious tone of Ives’s original while adding new effects not possible on organ. A waltz is accompanied by pizzicato strings, castanets and tambourine enliven the Spanish-sounding fourth variation, and brass and percussion come to the fore for the final variation, leading to a rousing rendition of the final phrase on the words “let freedom ring!”

- Christopher Wilkins

For the premiere of Michael Gandolfi’s Chesapeake: Summer of 1814, Dana Bonstrom created the following historical narrative:

September 14, 2014 marks the bicentennial of the drafting of a poem, in the early morning aftermath of the Battle of Baltimore, by a young lawyer held captive on a British frigate in the outer precincts of Baltimore Harbor.

Chesapeake: Summer of 1814 is a meditation on the importance of music in the lives and endeavors of our forebears (and their British cousins) in the early years of the 19th century. The work is predicated almost exclusively on contemporary accounts of the music that was sung and played in the course of the prosecution of the War of 1812.

Prologue: Origins of a Melody
The work begins with a statement of To Anacreon in Heaven, the original song upon whose melody Francis Scott Key draped his poem. The song, written to honor a London gentlemen’s club, was well-known in America. In fact, Key had earlier borrowed the melody to set his poem celebrating the American naval hero, Stephen Decatur.

American Pastoral
This movement is built upon Durang’s Hornpipe, a dance written by William Hoffmaster for John Durang, America’s first professional dancer, and reputedly George Washington’s favorite performer. It underscores the maritime origins of the war, as well as the bumptious vigor of the citizens of the new republic. As Alexis de Toqueville wrote in 1831 “…the American has no time to tie himself to anything…instability, instead of occurring to him in the form of disasters, seems to give birth to nothing around him but wonders…”

Coincidentally, The Star-Spangled Banner is believed to have been first sung in public by John Durang’s son, Ferdinand, at a Baltimore tavern in early October 1814.

The Battle of Bladensburg: August 24, 1814
On August 19, 1814, British troops came ashore in Maryland. Until that time, the war had been waged principally in the Atlantic, and on the Canadian border. The British arrival in the Chesapeake signaled a determination to conclude the war quickly and decisively.

At Bladensburg a British expedition easily defeated a much larger but utterly disorganized American force, sending them into a panicked retreat. The British are here represented by the triumphant Rule Britannia!; the Americans by Hail, Columbia! ¬– begun proudly, but trailing off into quiet despair.

The British March on Washington: August 25, 1814
Washington D.C., in 1814, was little more than a village of 7,000 residents with no strategic value to Britain’s war aims. The town had symbolic value, however: the Americans had earlier invaded the Canadian city of York (now Toronto) and burned the parliament building to the ground. The British were determined to return the insult.

We first hear Mrs. Madison’s Minuet (composed for Dolley Madison by Alexander Reinagle in 1809) implying a state of normality in the White House, even as the British advance. Drums announce the approach of the British army; the advancing troops sing Handel’s chorus See, the Conquering Hero Comes! before setting torch to the White House and Capitol.

Onward, to Baltimore!
The British now moved on their true objective: Baltimore, center of American maritime activity, and home to the privateers who had harassed the British merchant and naval fleets for years.

The Battle of Baltimore was fought on land and water. At North Point, seven miles to the east of the city, a likely over-confident British force (God Save the King) encountered a defiant and determined American militia (Yankee Doodle, with lyrics written for recruitment of volunteers); the Americans handed the British a decisive and costly defeat.

Calm Before the Storm: Baltimore Harbor, September 13, 1814
The second front in the Battle of Baltimore was at the entrance to Baltimore Harbor on the Patapsco River, where the British navy planned an assault first on Fort McHenry, and then on the city itself. A contemplative calm descends before the battle erupts into a terrifying night-long bombardment of the fort by British cannon and rockets.

The Guns Fall Silent: September 14, 1814
In the quiet first moments of dawn, Francis Scott Key approaches a British officer aboard HM Frigate Surprise and asks his questions: “I beg your pardon: may I ask if you know what has happened? Has Baltimore fallen? Has Fort McHenry been seized? All of yesterday I saw our flag flying over the fort. And last night, at the height of battle, the sky made bright as day by the light of your rockets and flares, the flag was still there. But what of it now? The guns have fallen silent. Who is the victor? Who has won? Wait! The sun has found it. The Stars and Stripes still fly!”

Key’s Question Becomes a Song
As Francis Scott Key speaks, his words are taken up by the chorus and transformed into the first verse of what we recognize as our national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner.

- Dana Bonstrom

Christopher Wilkins’ Summer Blog- Rhapsody in Green

August 18, 2014

The Boston Landmarks Orchestra’s next free concert at the DCR’s Hatch Shell will take place on Wednesday, August 20 at 7 PM. Here are a few words from Music Director Christopher Wilkins.


One of many traditions begun by the Boston Landmarks Orchestra’s founder, Charles Ansbacher, that we are pleased to continue is the annual Green Concert. Performing music about nature invites appreciation of the scenic beauty of the Esplanade. It also brings to the oval many long-term partners, people and organizations who help protect the world we live in. We welcome them all tonight.

Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz (“The Marksman”) is considered by many to be the first masterpiece of German Romantic opera. The overture sets the scene with slow-moving phrases shrouded in mystery and foreboding. We are at the edge of a dark forest in a small Bohemian town at the end of the Thirty Years War. Four hunting horns offer a contrasting image of the forest, which now appears as a fairy-tale woodland. The horn music presents the vision of a happy, loving existence for the forester hero, Max.

The horns recede, and in their wake emerge low mysterious chords in the strings and deep thumps in the timpani. It is music from the famous “Wolf’s Glen” scene of the opera, in which Max makes a pact with Samiel, the satanic spirit of the wood. The main allegro now begins. It also has a dark and a light side. A shadowy agitated tune associated with the hero in a fearful disposition is followed by the irresistible folk-like song of Max’s love interest, Agathe.

Near the end of the overture, evil is finally vanquished by a full orchestral outburst in C major, the key of purity (having no sharps or flats). The musical language of Der Freischütz influenced the entire development of German Romantic opera. Richard Wagner cited Weber in his own autobiography as a key influence, mentioning the “Wolf’s Glen” scene from Der Freischütz in particular.

Jean Françaix wrote his oboe concerto, The Flower Clock, in 1959 for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s principal oboist, John de Lancie. The work is built in seven continuous short movements, each of which is named for one of the flowers in a botanical clock designed by Swedish botanist, Carl von Linne (1707-1778), known as Linnaeus. Linnaeus is the founder of the modern botanical classification system still in use today. His Flower Clock consisted of a series of flowers organized according to the time of day at which each bloomed. The work is laid out as if passing through the cycle of a single day. The music shows exquisite attention to detail. It is colorful, attractive and, as with all of Françaix’s music, full of charm and wit.
Edward MacDowell is the best-known American composer of the Romantic era. His Orchestral Suite No. 1 was composed while MacDowell and his wife lived in Boston (1888 to 1896), and was premiered by the Boston Symphony under Emil Pauer. MacDowell’s musical style derives largely from his German training, though his subject matter is often American. The three movements performed tonight (out of the suite’s total of five) provide an excellent example of his imaginative scoring and his penchant for creating beautiful small-scale tone poems inspired by nature.

In 1896, the MacDowells purchased land in New Hampshire on which they built a cabin and set up a writing studio for Edward. It was on this property that the MacDowell Colony was established in 1907. The colony remains a vital force in American arts and letters today. It has been a sanctuary for composers, painters, authors, and sculptors for more than a century.

The Second Symphony of Jean Sibelius is outdoors music. He composed most of it while traveling in Italy, where the Mediterranean air seems to have done his Finnish soul good. Simon Parmet, the Finnish conductor and composer, said about the work: “the quiet inward gaiety of the music shows him in the sunshine, face to face with the miracle of high summer… The Second Symphony is a song of praise to summer and the joy of living.”

Sibelius had an uncanny gift for deciphering the sounds he heard in nature. He once invited a friend on an unusual excursion, a site-listening trip to one of Finland’s natural wonders, the rapids of Imatra. “He had a passion,” Rosa Newmarch wrote, “for trying to hear the fundamental notes of natural forces. The fundamental tone of Imatra no man has gauged, but Sibelius often came away satisfied from his rapt listening.”

Sibelius was not so much interested in mimicking the sounds of nature, but in capturing the mysteries behind natural phenomena. Notes in Sibelius’s manuscript give us other clues as well: parts of the symphony are tied to a dramatic work Sibelius intended to write. In the second movement, for example, the word “Death” appears over a dark phrase in the violas and cellos; and later a reassuring idea in the upper strings is accompanied by the word, “Christ.”

The Second Symphony is music of deep personal experience. It covers an enormous emotional range, including grief, spiritual contemplation, ecstatic outbursts, and yes, “the joy of living.” But as with many works of Sibelius, the awe-inspiring voices of nature can be heard throughout. They ring memorably in the ear, and haunt every listener long after the work’s triumphant final chords have died out.

− Christopher Wilkins

Christopher Wilkins’ Summer Blog- From the New World: The Legacy of the Spirituals

August 11, 2014

The Boston Landmarks Orchestra will perform its next concert on Wednesday, August 13 at 7 PM at the DCR’s Hatch Shell (Rain Location: Church of the Covenant, 67 Newbury Street). Here are a few words from Music Director Christopher Wilkins.


Throughout his life, Dvořák drew inspiration from the music of common people. He was proud of his own peasant background, and often sought to imbue his compositions with the natural, unpretentious character of folk music. He rarely quoted actual folk melodies, preferring instead to familiarize himself with local traditions so thoroughly that he could capture their essential character in his own music.

So while it was a surprise to many Americans that Dvořák declared the sacred songs born of American slavery an appropriate starting point for the establishment of an American school of composition, it did not surprise those who knew him well. To Dvořák, the spirituals represented a folk tradition as great as any in the world. His pronouncement in the New York Herald on May 21, 1893 was a turning point in American musical life:

“In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music. They are pathetic, tender, passionate, melancholy, solemn, religious, bold, merry, gay or what you will… There is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot be supplied with themes from this source.”

Dvořák had come to New York City to serve as Director of the newly established National Conservatory of Music, a post he held from 1892-95. The Conservatory had a policy of accepting students of all racial and economic backgrounds, often tuition-free. One student of exceptional talent and character who arrived at the Conservatory just months ahead of Dvořák was Harry T. Burleigh of Erie, PA, the grandson of a freed slave.

Burleigh impressed Dvořák from the beginning, eventually becoming both his friend and his main copyist. Burleigh was in Dvořák’s company on a regular basis as the Ninth Symphony was composed: “I copied many of the orchestra parts of the “New World” Symphony from his original partitur,” Burleigh reported, “getting it ready for its first performance by the [New York] Philharmonic.”

Dvořák learned the spirituals largely from Burleigh. He “literally saturated himself with Negro song,” Burleigh recalled. “I sang our Negro songs for him very often, and before he wrote his own themes, he filled himself with the spirit of the old Spirituals.” “Go Down, Moses. Burleigh, that is as great as a Beethoven theme!” Dvořák once exclaimed to his friend.

Another favorite of Dvořák’s was “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” He seems to quote it directly in the first movement of the “New World” Symphony, where the theme in the solo flute is a near copy of the second and third measures of the spiritual. The famous English horn melody from the second movement of the symphony assumes the character of a spiritual as well, and here too there is a Burleigh story. The Dvořák biographer H. C. Colles reported that the composer changed his original scoring of the tune from clarinets and flutes to solo English horn so as to better approximate Burleigh’s beautiful high baritone. It was a student in Dvořák’s composition class who set that melody to the words “Goin’ Home”: Williams Arms Fisher, who died in Brookline, MA in 1948.

The link between the spirituals and the “New World” Symphony was well established from the beginning. Dvořák himself stressed the connection. Less well understood is the influence that Native American music may have had. Dvořák did indeed go to some length to familiarize himself with music of certain Native American tribes and performers.

What is incontrovertible – and highly interesting especially to a Boston audience – is the connection between Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha and the “New World” Symphony. Dvořák described the Largo of the symphony as “a sketch for a longer work, either a cantata or an opera based upon Longfellow’s Hiawatha.” He went on: “The Scherzo of the symphony was suggested by the scene at the feast in Hiawatha where the Indians dance, and is also an essay I made in the direction of imparting the local color of Indian music…”

Among the most gifted of the African American composers who credited Dvořák with the inspiration to utilize the spirituals was Canadian-born Robert Nathaniel Dett. His setting of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” The Chariot Jubilee, even pays tribute to the opening of the Ninth Symphony’s Largo in its introductory chords. Originally composed for tenor, chorus and organ, the orchestration by Hale Smith was commissioned on behalf of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra by Benjamin Roe, who now serves as Managing Producer for Music and Performance at WGBH, and as a member of the Landmarks Orchestra’s Board of Overseers. Read Matthew Guerrieri’s article about The Chariot Jubilee from this past Sunday’s Boston Globe here:

The spirituals are folk music and cannot be attributed to any single composer. On the other hand, the individual arrangers – going back to Burleigh and before – are identifiable, and they play a crucial role. They are the curators of this trove of sacred songs. John Andrew Ross, a graduate of the Boston Public Schools and of Boston University, created the present memorable setting of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.” Ross served from 1970 as music director at the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts, and was well known locally as the musical director of the gospel play Black Nativity by Langston Hughes.

The New England Spiritual Ensemble is comprised of leading professional vocal artists in Boston, many of whom simultaneously pursue careers in non-musical fields. To honor this favorite collaborator, the Landmarks Orchestra commissioned composer Trevor Weston to write a work for both organizations based on the spirituals. For this performance, the orchestra has, for the first time, assembled the One City Junior Choir, in the spirit of the orchestra’s One City Choir. Our thanks to all the choir directors, parents, volunteers and staff who have helped in the formation of this new group.

Dr. Weston writes about his new work:

“Griots are West African performers who preserve and communicate the history of their communities through songs. Africans brought to America during the Atlantic Slave trade continued to communicate and share their experiences through song. Starting in the 19th century, Spirituals emerged as a uniquely American musical genre as Africans, converted to Christianity, created songs that commented on their experiences through Christian stories and doctrine.

“Griot Legacies celebrates the diversity and power of African American Spirituals.
The first movement emanates from a 1960 recording of an 84-year-old man singing “Run to Jesus for Refuge,” a piece he undoubtedly learned from people born into slavery. The second movement, “Lord, How Come Me Here,” explores the existential questions sometimes found in spirituals. This piece fundamentally asks the question, “Why?” Many spirituals were created to console and support individuals as the third movement demonstrates. “There is a Balm” imagines a better existence where the problems of the second movement are healed. The last movement celebrates the defiant nature of some spirituals. The sometimes-humorous verses of “I Got Shoes” flaunt the ownership of robes, shoes, etc., as a demonstration of individual agency during a period when ownership was denied to many African Americans. Triumph over adversity is a common theme in the American Dream and fundamental to the aspirational nature of African American Spirituals.”

-Christopher Wilkins

Christopher Wilkins’ Summer Blog- Fiesta sinfónica

July 21, 2014

The Boston Landmarks Orchestra will perform its first concert of the summer at the DCR’s Hatch Shell on Wednesday, July 23 at 7 PM. Here are a few words from Music Director Christopher Wilkins.


Music has little respect for political boundaries. In more than three centuries of musical sharing between key port cities in the New World – Havana, Port-au-Prince, New Orleans, New York, Miami – it is often impossible to determine what started where, who gets the credit, and whose tradition it is.

All of the works on tonight’s program are crossbreeds. They derive from European dances, Afro-Caribbean rhythms, and American innovations. The European influences are primarily Spanish, English, French, and Portuguese. The African derivations come mainly from the two great musical regions of Black Africa: the northern grassland below the Sahara (Senegal), and the forested south (Congo).

George Gershwin made a career of blending styles. Rhapsody in Blue (1924) set the tone: “I heard it as a… musical kaleidoscope of America,” he said. Porgy and Bess (1935) is almost a catalog of American musical traditions. In 1932, Gershwin visited Cuba and, with his infallible ear, easily assimilated the sound and feel of Afro-Cuban music. After a two-week stay, he produced a ten-minute work called Rumba. He later changed the title to Cuban Overture, which he considered more apt for a “serious” orchestral work.

During the 1930s, Cuban music enjoyed an enormous surge in popularity. The danzón and the Cuban rumba rose to international prominence. In the 40s and 50s, Afro-Cuban music positively flourished in New York City, the de facto home to “mambo mania.” Arsenio Rodríguez and Tito Puente led the way at the Palladium Ballroom, and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie incorporated Afro-Cuban music in an historic concert of jazz at Carnegie Hall. Chano Pozo was Dizzy’s drummer. He is remembered today as a progenitor of Latin jazz.

David Amram writes, “I joined Dizzy, Stan Getz and Earle “Fatha” Hines in March of 1977 where each of our respective bands gave the first-ever concert in Cuba since the revolution, with the sanction of the US State Department. The entire concert was dedicated to the memory of Chano Pozo… At the concert – with only a minute of a backstage outline to all the musicians – I was joined by trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera and the great family drum ensemble Los Papines.”

It was Dizzy Gillespie who suggested that Amram produce an orchestral version of that experience. Amram obliged, and the result was En memoria de Chano Pozo.

The decade of the 1930s found artists in a populist mood. Economic hardship called for art that served the common folk. Not coincidentally, it was also a decade of enormous growth for the film industry. 1939 is often cited as the greatest year in US film history (Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). In Mexico, the grand spectacles of Hollywood were considered a threat to their own burgeoning film industry. Mexican film director Chano Urueta distanced himself from Hollywood’s resplendent style by invoking distinctly Mexican traditions instead. In developing that aesthetic, he had the ideal partner in composer Silvestre Revueltas. “The spirit of Mexico is deep within me,” Revueltas wrote. He had an uncanny ability to express the spirit of Mexican culture without directly quoting folk material. His music is inherently colorful, earthy and eclectic, like Mexico itself.

La noche de los Mayas (The Night of the Mayas) lies at the center of the “Aztec Renaissance,” a movement taking inspiration from native history, ideals and expression. One of the few national awards Urueta’s film did not win was for set design, because the film was shot almost entirely in the ancient Mayan ruins of the Yucatán. Revueltas’s music evokes qualities he saw in the landscape, and sounds he imagined to be ancient Mayan ceremonial music. His score employs a great many indigenous percussion instruments, or their modern equivalents. Of special note are the log drum, Indian drums, and the conch shell.

The Fiesta sinfónica program has been a highlight of the Landmarks Orchestra’s season for the past three years. At the heart of it has been a commissioned work of Gonzalo Grau, Viaje. Viaje began as a musical travelogue through four Caribbean nations. This year, two new Latin American countries have been added to the tour: Gonzalo’s native Venezuela and Brazil.

Our performing partners in Viaje, and in David Amram’s work, are the extraordinary members of the “pocket-sized salsa orchestra” that Alex Alvear has brought together. They comprise many of the leading performers of Latin jazz in Boston, and indeed in the nation. No experience of Latin popular music is complete without dancing, and we have some of the best in Bajucol, a leading Latin American folkloric youth ballet company in Boston, led by Miguel Vargas.

− Christopher Wilkins

Update Regarding Concert Scheduled for July 16

July 16, 2014

The potential of heavy rains occurring during our set up time has caused us to cancel tonight’s concert at the DCR’s Hatch Shell. By cancelling this morning, we will be able to record the entire program which will be audio streamed on for two weeks beginning Thursday, July 17 by 5 pm. We are very grateful to the Boston Musicians’ Association for allowing us to make this happen.

Christopher Wilkins’ Summer Blog: Opening Night

July 11, 2014

The Boston Landmarks Orchestra will kick off its 2014 season of free concerts at the DCR’s Hatch Shell on Wednesday, July 16 at 7 PM. Here are a few words from Music Director Christopher Wilkins.


As we gather once more at the river, our thoughts turn to the role music plays in the civic life of a city. The Boston Landmarks Orchestra is sustained by the idea that our community is drawn together in meaningful ways through shared experiences of great music. This summer’s programming gathers together dozens of collaborators and partner organizations from throughout the Boston area. Tonight’s One City Choir is emblematic of them all.

As remarkable as Boston is as a musical hub, the strengthening of community through musical experience is possible everywhere. “Music is pretty much like fire: it needs constantly to be looked after.” That is how Dr. Ahmad Naser Sarmast once explained his inspiration for founding the Afghanistan National Institute for Music. For his achievements and courage, Dr. Sarmast has been awarded the Charles Ansbacher Music for All Award for 2014.

Kabul is a world away from Boston, but Dr. Sarmast’s convictions remind us of the life work of Maestro Ansbacher. There is a deep connection too between their philosophy and the core beliefs of Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu, last year’s recipient of the Ansbacher Award. Dr. Abreu’s program of youth orchestras – known universally as El sistema – brings hope and healing to children around the world. Next week’s program features the El sistema-inspired Dudamel Orchestra of the Conservatory Lab Charter School.

At the River
We launch the 2014 season with music of two native sons: Larry Thomas Bell and Leonard Bernstein. Dr. Bell has composed the second of the Boston Landmarks Orchestra’s commissioned settings of a traditional American hymn. He writes:

“The text for the old hymn tune At the River depicts a beautiful, surreal vision of heaven. In my musical adaptation, I tried to create an analogous music to the words ‘gather by the river that flows by the throne of God.’ It is entirely fitting that we should be gathering here by the equally beautiful but earthly Charles River to begin the 2014 season of the Landmarks Orchestra. I like to think that Charles Ansbacher is smiling down on us from his heavenly perch listening to the orchestra that he did so much to create.”

Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront
Film director Elia Kazan created his 1954 masterpiece, On the Waterfront, in part to answer his many critics who were furious at him for “naming names” before the House Un-American Activities Committee. The film deals with one man’s dilemma in dealing with union-related violence on the New Jersey docks. He faces an internal struggle between integrity and personal safety.

Kazan approached Leonard Bernstein to score the film for the same reasons he pursued Marlon Brando as lead actor: he wanted them for their talent and their prestige. Bernstein was, at the age of 35, already a considerable star. His score to On the Waterfront plays a crucial role in generating the film’s emotional heat. Bernstein serves as Kazan’s cinematic co-pilot, navigating adroitly between the film’s emotional poles of tenderness and brutality.

The Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront features three principal melodies: a noble theme for Terry Malloy (Brando’s character); a violent motive connected to the longshoremen; and a love theme for Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint in her screen debut). The “Brando” theme is heard at the outset played by the solo horn. Violence erupts as timpani and drums pound away under a “squealing” phrase introduced by the saxophone. The Brando theme returns, ushering in the love music. At the end, the “Brando” and “Saint” themes are heard together, interlocked in counterpoint.

Carmina burana
And finally… the sound and fury of Carl Orff’s Carmina burana, settings of 24 medieval poems from Bavaria. This music has been used for many purposes, but tonight it serves to demonstrate the outstanding quality of these performers: the orchestra, our guest artists, the choristers of the Back Bay Chorale, the One City Choir, and Steve Colby, our sound engineer to whom we owe so much.

The instrument Carl Orff most wanted to play as a child was the timpani. This should come as no surprise to fans of Carmina burana. Rhythm dominates right from the start. Powerful blows in the timpani and low brass lead to the massive utterance of O Fortuna, one of the most recognizable stretches of music in the world. The image is of a giant turning wheel that determines the fate of all humanity. O Fortuna creates a powerful frame for the whole of Carmina burana. It is the massive portal through which listeners enter the work, and by which – 65 minutes later – they exit.

Within this structural enclosure, Orff places three separate sections, settings of poetry loosely organized by theme: In Springtime (pastoral poetry); In the Tavern (drinking songs, which Orff presents as the exclusive domain of men); and The Court of Love (erotic poetry). The lyric high point of this last section is the solo soprano’s floating high B on the word “Dulcissime,” signaling surrender to her suitor, and ravishing every listener as all succumb to love’s allure.

— Christopher Wilkins

“I Have a Dream” 50th Anniversary Concert

August 22, 2013

Before exiting the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Alabama, a visitor steps into the final room. It is not a gift shop. It is more like a concert hall. Here Martin Luther King Jr. performs on the big screen. It’s his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, which he delivers with passion, power and an unerring sense of timing, like a great Shakespearean.

In the last half of the speech, King lifts his head, no longer reading from his notes. His voice rises and falls in lines thatseem improvised which, by this point in the speech, they are: “I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.” He croons like a great jazz singer:“From every mountaintop, let freedom ring!”

 King’s speeches are peppered with song lyrics, including those of “America,” also known as “My Country, Tis of Thee.” He borrows from hymn verses, gospel songs and Negro spirituals. Lee Hoiby’s setting of the latter part of the “I Have a Dream” speech echoes these musical references, but it also captures beautifully the lyric drama of King’s vocal performance.

 The spirituals played a crucial role in Dr. King’s crusade for civil rights. During the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, Mahalia Jackson sang “I’ve Been ‘Buked,” and Marian Anderson sang “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” The spirituals helped define the purpose of the civil rights movement, placing it in the context of a universal and eternal struggle for social justice, rooted in community and prayer.

 The themes of hope and salvation that are contained in the spirituals have influenced composers throughout the world. English composer Michael Tippett used the spirituals in his oratorio A Child of our Time, where he drew upon theirhealing power. The harsh quality of Tippett’s subject, revolving around an aspect the Nazi pogrom known asKristallnacht, is balanced by the deeply consoling tone of the spirituals. The fact that the spirituals are from another time and place helps elevate Tippett’s work, bestowing on it universality and timelessness.

 The “I Have a Dream” speech is rich in allusion. It makesreference to the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the U. S. Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. King quotes frequently from scripture, at one point drawing from Isaiah verses that are well known to every enthusiast of Baroque music: “Every valley shall be exalted, and every hill made low.” The final words of the speech are drawn from a 19th century Baptist hymn (probably not a spiritual as he had thought):“Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we’re free at last!”

 Four and a half years later, in the final speech of his life, King once again quoted the lyrics of a favorite song.Dominic Tierney, associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College, tells the story in a recent issue of The Atlantic (“America’s Song of Itself”). I quote his article with liberal use of ellipsis:

 “On April 3, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. rose to speak in support of striking sanitation workers inMemphis, Tennessee. “I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land,” King announced. “And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.” And then he closed in his lyrical voice: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” The next day he lay dying on the second floor of the Lorraine Motel, struck in the cheek by an assassin’s bullet.

 “The last line that King ever spoke in public came from a song, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” written by Julia Ward Howe in 1861. It was a fitting finale to the life of a great American because the story of the “Battle Hymn” is the story of the United States. The song, now approaching its 150th anniversary, is a hallowed treasure and a second national anthem… But most of all, the “Battle Hymn” is a warrior’s cry and a call to arms. Its vivid portrait of sacred violence captures how Americans fight wars… as a righteous struggle—a holy war for a democratic peace.”

 The principles motivating both the March on Washington and the “I Have a Dream” speech – freedom of expression, fairness of economic opportunity, individual responsibility and collective action – lie at the heart of Alan Paton’s classic novel Cry, the Beloved Country. The story is set in South Africa amidst the racial turbulence of 1940’s Johannesburg. It describes a murder, motivated by economic need, which resonates throughout the community in ways both tragic and hopeful.

 In Paton’s novel, the murdered man had been revered for his advocacy on behalf of the native people of South Africa. He had been a great admirer of Abraham Lincoln, and Lincoln’s writings and speeches play an important partin the story. The novel’s themes of justice and social responsibility are expressed in such a way that they have proven meaningful for readers throughout the world ever since the book was first published. It is fitting that for tonight’s performance of Kurt Weill’s musical adaptation of the novel, the Boston Landmarks Orchestra has once again recruited its One City Choir, drawing on volunteer singers from across our community.  

 When Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson were granted therights to create a staged adaptation of Cry, the Beloved Country, they learned that the film rights had been given to another party. A filmed version of Cry, the Beloved Country was already destined for the silver screen. Wishing to reserve the option of eventually turning their Broadwayshow into a film, Weill and Anderson changed the title from Cry, the Beloved Country to Lost in the Stars. They felt that a new film, following what they hoped would be a successful Broadway run, should have the same title as the staged version.

 When Paton attended the premiere of Lost in the Stars, hewas impressed with Weill’s music but upset by many of Anderson’s revisions. Anderson had inserted a nihilisticphilosophical perspective, suggesting that people live by and large as lonely beings without meaningful connection to others. As the title song put it: “we’re lost out here in the stars.” But Paton’s intention had been completely the opposite. He contended that all members of a society areinterconnected, and that the actions of each individual affect the whole. All people must take responsibility for the consequences of their actions, he argued. Furthermore, he believed that the duty to care for each other is bound by our relationship to God.

 When composer and musicologist David Drew created a concert version of Lost in the Stars in 1988, he changed the name back to Cry, the Beloved Country. He did so in part out of respect for what he felt was Kurt Weill’s original intention to adhere as closely as possible to the language and meaning of the novel. It is Drew’s version that is performed tonight, augmented by readings from several passages of the book, included by permission of the Paton estate.

 Photographer James Westwater has collaborated with orchestras over many years, combining photography and music in an art form he calls photochoreography. During tonight’s performance of Lincoln Portrait, photographscollected and organized by Mr. Westwater are shown on a screen suspended over the orchestra. Most of these pictures are taken from the collection of Civil War images captured by Mathew Brady and photographers in his studio. Toward the end of the work, the pictures change to 20th century images, including a photograph of Dr. King at the Lincoln Memorial.

 This spring, one of our Breaking Down Barriers advisors, Christopher Robinson of Boston University, alerted us to the fact that there existed no standard American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation of the speech. TheBoston Landmarks Orchestra approached the estate of Martin Luther King Jr., which confirmed this fact, and enthusiastically endorsed the idea of creating such an interpretation. As a result, the orchestra has commissioned the first-ever officially sanctioned interpretation of the speech. It has been created by Richard Bailey of Boston University and is performed tonight by deaf artist Misha Blood.

 The ideas expressed in the “I Have a Dream” speech were potent, but they were not new. History was made because of the persuasiveness and universality of Dr. King’s language and the virtuosity of his delivery. To touch the hearts of Americans, he harnessed the power of many forms of artistic expression: rhetoric, literature and poetry, hymns and sacred songs. From the hundreds of thousands of listeners gathered that day at the Lincoln Memorial,great waves of applause followed his every ringing line. In the midst of the speech, he summarized his dream in termsthat are apt for an orchestral concert: that one day “all God’s children will be able to sing” in a “beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”


- Christopher Wilkins


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