The Boston Landmarks Orchestra opened its 2013 summer season at the DCR Hatch Shell Wednesday with its annual green concert in celebration of America’s city, state, and national parks. And the program for this “Rhapsody in Green” could hardly have been more enticing: the premiere of “At the River,” by Northeastern University music-department chair Anthony De Ritis, Ralph Vaughan Williams’s “The Lark Ascending,” Johann Strauss II’s “Tales From the Vienna Woods,” and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, the “Pastorale.” On a hot, humid night, the BLO performances were a breath of cool air.
De Ritis’s uplifting composition, a setting of the 19th-century Robert Lowry hymn “Shall We Gather at the River,” was big and dramatic, with a touch of Hollywood or the Pops. Myran Parker-Brass, Boston Public Schools’ executive director for the arts, gave the vocal solo heartfelt power and resonance.
“The Lark Ascending,” which Vaughan Williams wrote first for violin and piano (1914) and then for violin and orchestra (1920), was inspired by George Meredith’s poem of the same name, which begins, “He rises and begins to round/ He drops the silver chain of sound,/ Of many links without a break/ In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.”
Wearing no tie, and with his white shirt hanging out over his trousers, perhaps for freedom of movement, BLO concertmaster Gregory Vitale was an engagingly informal sight as the soloist, and his rustic tone, wiry but not thin, was ideal for the piece. Some of the delicacy of the composer’s orchestration got lost in the outdoor acoustic, but Vitale’s playing was silvery enough to let one imagine those were skylarks overhead and not seagulls.
“Tales From the Vienna Woods” is famous for the solo zither statement of its first waltz. Lacking a zither player, the BLO substituted solo strings. I missed the zither’s nasal twang, but the performance was full bodied and lilting, with the different waltz sections well characterized and a plethora of teasing Viennese suspensions in the phrasing. To one side of the Hatch Shell, a pair of ladies got up and waltzed.
The “Pastorale” was similarly extroverted, nature erupting at the composer’s joyful arrival in the country. Conductor Christopher Wilkins gave the symphony a lush, unhurried interpretation that reveled in detail. The nightingale, quail, and cuckoo calls at the end of the second movement were crystalline; so was the comic bassoon in the third. I especially liked the way Wilkins eased out of the thunderstorm and relaxed into the concluding hymn of thanksgiving.
The encore was a rousing rendition of the contradance finale from Beethoven’s “The Creatures of Prometheus,” whose tune would later turn up in the finale of the composer’s “Eroica” Symphony. Nature didn’t get up and dance, but it did applaud with a refreshing breeze.