Exploring theatre, nature, space and more, Boston Landmarks Orchestra’s Christopher Wilkins talks depth and diversity in free summer concert series

From exploring live theatre and music to nature to science to space as well as taking on racism, climate change, and many more important topics all involving a vast array of community members, organizations, and performers, Boston Landmarks Orchestra is so much more than a beautiful free Wednesday night concert outing at the Esplanade.  Boston Landmarks Orchestra Gala will celebrate 90 years of free concerts on the Esplanade in October.

WCRB is a media partner for the Boston Landmarks free concert series.  Click here for Boston Landmarks Orchestra’s complete summer schedule at Boston’s renowned Hatch Shell and here for further details on the upcoming Gala.

It was an honor to speak with Christopher Wilkins, Boston Landmarks Orchestra’s conductor and Music Director, who took time out of his busy schedule to discuss the highlights of the Boston Landmarks Orchestra’s summer season and what is coming up.

The Sleepless Critic:  The season kicked off on July 10 with the second annual “Season Tune-Up” party.  What was that like?

Christopher Wilkins:  It was a gorgeous night with a great turn out.  Lots of children attended and we introduced our audience to many of our partner organizations which include musical organizations, music educational schools, and partners like the New England Aquarium and the Museum of Science.  The “Season Tune-Up” Party featured fun games, a performance from the Everett High School band, and our Maestro Zone where kids can step up at the podium, wave the baton, look at a score, and get a conducting lesson.  We offer Maestro Zone at our regular concerts as well.

Boston Landmarks Orchestra Maestro Zone Assistant Conductor Shuang Fan

The Maestro Zone with Maestro Zone Assistant Conductor Shuang Fan

SC:  We’ve been blessed with some beautiful nights this summer.  You have been the Music Director and conductor for the Boston Landmarks Orchestra since 2011.  What has it been like for you collaborating with different theatres and new works each year?

CW:  Our mission is to engage as many Bostonians as possible from all walks of life and one of our strategies is to develop partnerships.  They feature an array of organizations to get their fans, their folks, and their constituency excited to come to a concert and work with us.

One of our best strategies is to create composer residencies in different neighborhoods around Boston so people who might not ever encounter an orchestra can develop some way of making music or dancing or some other performing art that they can bring to our stage and perform with the orchestra. We have a lot of inexperienced young performers throughout the summer and some who have never been onstage before.   We do all that along with an eclectic lineup of Dvorak, Broadway, symphonies, and a great choral repertoire.

SC:  It must be an incredible experience to see how everybody interacts with each other and how it turns out onstage.

CW:  It’s wonderful to perform it in the Hatch Shell because it is an iconic venue, people associate it with orchestral music, and it is in the heart of the city.  The Hatch Shell is also quite enormous. We can fit 5,000 people or more at our concerts and that is typically what we draw when the weather is nice.

SC:  Such depth in a free event.

CW:  It’s important to many people that can’t afford to come otherwise.  It’s also a powerful emblem of the idea of universal access.  Everybody is welcome.

We just think about access barriers, which are not only economic.  Cultural assumptions in a community can cause people to stay away.  At Landmarks, we think deeply about what those barriers are and do what we can to get rid of them.

SC:  Yes, and you have held many events so far this season.  For example, you recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Moon Landing with Symphonic Space Odyssey.  How did you pay tribute to this historic event?

CW:  We performed that in Jordan Hall because it was a stormy night.  Jordan Hall is one of the most beautiful venues in America and the sound indoors just rattles your bones.  We didn’t have to change the program at all, just the venue.

The Moon Landing is one of the most amazing achievements in the history of mankind.  It was an awesome night and we celebrated it with the Museum of Science which was perfect because they have had an exhibition ever since the moon landing occurred.  The Museum of Science prepared fabulous video footage relating to the moon landing, space travel, rockets, and deep space taken from materials produced in house at the Hayden Planetarium for their full dome experience.

SC:  What are you most looking forward to this season?

CW:  Each week is so over the top that it’s hard to pick a favorite.  We have a wonderful collaboration on August 14 with the New England Aquarium featuring some remarkable video material that will be synchronized live to the orchestra.

Boston Landmarks Orchestra New England Aquarium

Boston Landmarks Orchestra partners with the New England Aquarium for a free concert on August 14 Photo courtesy of Boston Landmarks Orchestra/New England Aquarium

The subject is climate change and we’re performing Vaughan Williams Symphonia Antarctica which is originally a film score, but now set to a more recent film made by Natural History New Zealand featuring all shots from Antarctica.

Then we have a beautiful photographic sequence put together by Boston Globe writer David Arnold called “Above and Below.”  He’s taken Brad Washburn’s iconic aerial photographs of glaciers and coral reefs mostly from the 1930’s and then taking the same shots today.  Of course what you see is a devastating record of loss set to Adagio for Strings.  The program also includes optimistic shots from Boston Harbor and other places from then and now which shows tremendous improvement environmentally and send the message that we can do something about climate change.

We did an extremely interesting panel discussion recently which has some caused useful and in depth panel conversation called “Who Should Sing Ol’ Man River?” around race and the portrayal of racial themes at WBUR CitySpace.  Our moderator was Emmett G Price III, a celebrity in Boston and a wonderful musician, historian, pastor, and radio personality.  It was a wonderfully experienced and informed panel who weighed in on a lot of these questions and shaped how we put together the following week’s concert.

Boston Landmarks Orchestra Alvy Powell

Bass Bariton Alvy Powell Photo courtesy of Boston Landmarks Orchestra

SC:  Ol’ Man River from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Showboat” is such an amazing song and I’ve seen it done is so many different ways.

CW:  It’s a showstopper.  Our base Alvy Powell has sung Ol’ Man River in the White House for the last six sitting Presidents in a row.  He sang it at George H.W. Bush’s funeral at President Bush and his wife Barbara’s request.  He also sang it at Gerald Ford’s funeral.  If anyone should sing Ol’ Man River, it’s Alvy Powell and he performed it that night.

SC:  What kind of conversation sprung from that panel?

CW:  That’s a good question.  We got into questions of language, dialect, the history of black music, and cultural appropriation.  Quite an interesting segment was when we were looking at where we go from here.  One of our panelists was Ashleigh Gordon, founder of an organization that has attracted a lot of praise and attention called Castle of Our Skins.  It celebrates African American composers and performers.  She’s done an amazing job furthering the discussion and coming up with creative ways of producing eye catching programming.

They are opening a permanent set of offices at the Boston Center for the Arts.  We are collaborating with Ashleigh, Castle of Our Skins and Anthony Green, a composer she works with frequently on the Esplanade on August 21 for our Landmarks Dance Night.  The project surrounds the music and dance of Haiti because we are also including the Jean Appolon Expressions Dance Company.

Boston Landmarks Orchestra Jennifer Ellis Matthew DiBattista, Maesto Wilkins, and One City Choir

Christopher Wilkins with Jennifer Ellis Matthew DiBattista, Maesto Wilkins, and One City Choir Photo courtesy of Boston Landmarks Orchestra

It’s often our best vehicle for showcasing the diversity of traditions and types of cultural expression.  I grew up here, but the city is infinitely more diverse now than it was when I grew up.

SC:  Absolutely.  What have you liked most over your time with the Boston Landmarks Orchestra?

CW:  We’ve had lots of great moments over the last eight or nine years.  My first concert was conducting Beethoven’s 9th at Fenway Park so that is pretty hard to top.  We did an amazing night celebrating the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream Speech with Governor Deval Patrick as our narrator and featuring a lot of video and photographic imagery.

We did a memorable collaboration with the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum when their director, Peggy Fogelman, first arrived in Boston.  Another highlight was a series of programs with Commonwealth Shakespeare Company.  We performed full productions of musicals or a Shakespeare play such as “Midsummer Night’s Dream” with Mendelssohn.

The musicians learn something they know so well and are able to put it into the context of the play while the actors now can play off a symphony.  Now how often does that happen?   It is amazing for the performers and the audience.

SC:  You’ve performed all over the United States.  What do you like best about your time with the Boston Landmarks Orchestra?

CW:  I love our mission.  It’s readily understandable to most people in the community which I think is why we are receiving increasing levels of support from all quarters from individuals and foundations and from political reps because we are using great music with its level of complexity, depth, and emotional appeal and a first class professional orchestra as a means to gather community together.

I don’t know another orchestra that has a mission defined in this way.  I learn a lot and meet all kinds of interesting people doing interesting work.  We get to come together in a musical setting and it’s almost guaranteed everybody has a wonderful time.

Sit back and enjoy the Boston Landmarks Orchestra free every Wednesday night.  Click here for the full schedule and how to support future concerts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Music Director Jamie Kirsch talks Chorus pro Musica’s concert version of comedy musical, ‘Of Thee I Sing’

A spectacular evening of comedy, romance, and award-winning music is in store with Chorus pro Musica’s concert version of Gershwin Of Thee I Sing on Saturday, May 13 at Robbins Memorial Town Hall in Arlington, Massachusetts at 8 p.m.  In the spirit of the show, concert attendees are encouraged to dress in 30s-inspired attire for a costume contest.  Click here for full details and tickets.

Jamie Kirsch is in his fourth year as Music Director of Chorus pro Musica and loves his work.  He offers a closer look into Of Thee I Sing, his incredible work with Chorus pro Musica, and more.

Chorus Pro Musica Jamieinaction

Chorus pro Musica’s Music Director Jamie Kirsch in action Photo courtesy of Alonso Nichols/Tufts University

Jeanne Denizard:  What I absolutely love about Gershwin Of Thee I Sing is it is part concert and part theatrical production.  It has comedy and romance as well.

Jamie Kirsch:  Yeah, writers definitely have called it a work.  It is a unified single where there’s no instantly recognizable tune in this show in the way one would recognize other Gershwin’s most famous songs from musicals that can be extracted and don’t have anything necessarily to do with the plot.  They don’t appear in the best of Gershwin albums because for the most part, everything is tied to that story.  There might be one or two songs that someone might recognize such as the title song of Of Thee I Sing and certainly people have recorded the song, Who Cares, but no song that would be on people’s top ten list of pieces they know because they bought a greatest hits album or a Michael Feinstein album.  They are wonderful songs, but they are all tied to the book.

JD:  I also understand that this is the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize.

JK:  It did win the Pulitzer Prize in 1932.  Everyone won the Pulitzer except for George Gershwin because there was no Music Pulitzer at the time.  Ira, Kaufman, and Ryskind got it.  I think actually it was awarded to George posthumously where there finally was a music Pulitzer.

JD:  Of Thee I Sing surrounds the election of John P. Wintergreen and deals with politics in a humorous and lighthearted way.  I understand you really were excited about this particular piece to add to the season more for the music than for its political statement though we had a heated election just recently.

JK:  Yes, it doesn’t make a political statement one way or another.  There is no political party mentioned, making fun of both sides equally.  We also picked the piece well over a year ago.  The current players in the real world were still in the primaries and no one had any inkling of what was to transpire and how unexpected it would be.

Numerous colleges and universities did the show right around the election.  It is remarkable how many across the entire country, even major schools of music.  The University of Michigan did it in October and November knowing what was going on.  We had the same idea, hoping it would be a relevant topic but we didn’t plan for any outcome either way.  Separate from the political stuff, it happens to be a musical dominated by choruses and it made perfect sense to do it with our chorus.

JD:  Now, are you going to be performing a lot of scenes from the show?

JK:  Yes, it is a concert version.  We’re doing most of it, just without the staging.

JD:  I understand it has some comedy and a bit of romance as well.

JK:  Absolutely, there are elements common to musical theatre.  People talk about how different it is from anything else Gershwin wrote, but the other side of that coin is a love triangle.  Certainly plenty of musicals have love triangles and also present is an element of the exotic where a French ambassador arrives in the second act and that happens throughout many other musicals.  It’s new, but it has ties to the standard, more traditional musical theatre.

JD:  It sounds like there will be lots of surprises.

JK:  Yes, there will be musical surprises.  It has a Gershwin, jazzy sound and Gershwin rhythms and syncopation, but it is really unique.  There are scenes that go on and on and mostly music for a good ten minutes.  It’s kind of like Gilbert and Sullivan in that way.  That is an example of a piece of music that cannot be extracted.  You are not going to perform that at a musical theatre cabaret as you would with another Gershwin tune.

JD:  You will have featured artists such as Margot Rood, Christina English, and David McFerrin.

JK:  They are three of the best singers around town and the city and I have worked with a couple of them before.  They are just wonderful, so flexible, and able to handle this repertoire and style as easily as they are able to handle early and baroque music.  They are so incredibly versatile, talented, and wonderful actors.  Having them on board for this production is very special.

JD:  You are also the sixth Music Director of Chorus pro Musica.  The chorus has existed close to 70 years.  What is it like to conduct this chorus?

JK:  It’s a joy.  The musicians are incredibly hard working, love challenging themselves, conquering major works, and striving for excellence.  They are so supportive of each other, collegial, and just wonderful people.  They care so much about the product and each other, the chorus, and its history.

Chorus Pro Musica

Chorus pro Musica group shot Photo courtesy of Eric Antoniou

I’m very grateful to be able to do the things that we do with Chorus pro Musica.  In this season alone, we have done maybe the greatest work by Beethoven and some of the greatest works by Mahler.  Then we move on to Gershwin.  We are dealing with pretty amazing people.  I’ve written some amazing music and this chorus is up for the challenge to perform these pieces at an extremely high level while also keeping a good balance of fun while we do it.

JD:  This is your fourth year with Chorus pro Musica, but I understand that you are involved in a lot of projects.  You’re a busy man in music.

JK:  Yes, I am fortunate enough to be on the music faculty at Tufts as my main job and finishing my seventh year there.  It’s a wonderful job and I work with amazing colleagues who are at the tops of their field and teaching theory and musicology.  I teach in a beautiful building with supportive faculty and administration and wonderful students.  We recently did the Mozart C Minor mass.  Yes, between Chorus pro Musica and Tufts, I’m a pretty lucky person.

Chorus Pro Musica Boston City Singers

Family Holiday Concert 2014 Boston City Singers Photo courtesy of Chorus pro Musica

JD:  Do you have a favorite piece of music you like to conduct or a piece you are hoping to conduct with Chorus pro Musica?

JK:  One of the great things about the Chorus is that they are able to handle everything from a candlelight Christmas concert to Beethoven’s greatest works to Gershwin to new, modern pieces.  One of our strong suits is commissioning new works so we are commissioning brand new works by new composers.  They are able to handle any style, genre, and that is what I like to do.  It keeps things interesting for me and for the singers to switch gears from month to month.  Just to be able to be flexible in that way so the chorus matches my strength and my wanting to keep exploring, pushing, challenging, finding new, undiscovered music, create new music, commission new music, so I think in that way, it’s a very good match.

Chorus Pro Musica NE Philharmonic and Providence Singers

Chorus pro Musica with the New England Philharmonic and the Providence Singers, performing Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, March 14, 2012 in Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross.

JD:  You’ve also worked with a few Boston organizations and collaborated with them in the past.

JK:  We collaborated with the Boston Philharmonic a number of times and we will continue to do so.  We have a wonderful relationship with Ben Zander and the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and with Richard Pittman and the New England Philharmonic.  We did a number of wonderful collaborations with Richard Pittman.  We are always seeking out new collaborations because they are always great fun, enhance the groups, and work out well for everybody.

Click here for tickets to Gershwin Of Thee I Sing on May 13 at 8 p.m.  It will be an exciting evening that includes a post-concert reception.  Click here for more on Chorus Pro Musica and how to support their mission.