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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

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