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music review

A classical orchestra’s tribute to the Charles River

Christopher Wilkins (pictured in 2011) was at the helm.

bill brett for the boston globe/FILE 2011

Christopher Wilkins (pictured in 2011) was at the helm.

Christopher Wilkins, now in his second season as conductor of the Boston Landmarks Orchestra, has continued the group’s traditional pattern of roping classical repertoire into celebrations of unapologetically Bostonian subjects. Wednesday’s Hatch Shell concert, “At the River,” brought together four river-themed works, a musical tribute to the adjacent Charles.

With a large crowd enjoying a clear, pleasantly temperate summer evening, the mood was easygoing: picnics, a birthday serenade for the orchestra’s executive director, even a “maestro zone” where children (of all ages, as the saying goes) could pick up a baton and conduct along, coached by Landmarks assistant Benjamin Vickers. (Truth be told, some of the kids showed real promise; Boston Symphony Orchestra, take note.) Still, when it came to the music, the rivers were anything but lazy.

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Performances ranged from perfunctory — Johann Strauss Jr.’s “On the Beautiful Blue Danube” was more efficient than effervescent, though an indulgent Viennese afterbeat did emerge on occasion — to polished: Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 (the “Rhenish”) had a stately, burnished quality, Wilkins bringing forth some truly grand moments. Bedrich Smetana’s “The Moldau” flowed lean and brisk. Where some conductors might slow down to bring forth gravitas, Wilkins took things on the fast side to create a sense of fluency.

A selection of movements from Duke Ellington’s ballet “The River” (in Ron Collier’s orchestration) had less percolation, particularly in more rhythmically driven sections, but the orchestra comfortably took to Ellington’s plush ballads. (It was hard to get a sense of the group’s sound, amplification making everything AM-radio flat.)

But all the music, from Schumann’s trip up the Rhine to Ellington’s allegorical journey, emphasized travel, simulations of passing scenery. While the conservancy groups at tables ringing the Esplanade, educational pendants to the evening’s theme, promoted rivers as natural resources in need of preservation, the music portrayed them as thoroughfares.

Even the orchestra’s encore, the Hornpipe from Handel’s “Water Music,” was, after all, composed for a kingly pleasure cruise, conveyance for its own sake. Maybe it was the locale, the Hatch Shell being situated at a confluence of transportation — the Charles on the left, Storrow Drive on the right, the T rumbling over Longfellow Bridge in the background, jet contrails overhead — but the concert left one thinking that the artistic attraction of rivers might be the noble, natural spin they give to the innate human antipathy to standing still.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@
gmail.com.
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