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How Boston Landmarks Orchestra is keeping its Esplanade tradition alive

Dana Oakes recorded a trumpet solo for one of the concerts on a Beacon Hill rooftop, with the city of Boston as backdrop.
Dana Oakes recorded a trumpet solo for one of the concerts on a Beacon Hill rooftop, with the city of Boston as backdrop.Boston Landmarks Orchestra

Since its founding in 2001, Boston Landmarks Orchestra has offered free outdoor concerts each summer as a gift to the city of Boston. These concerts are the core of the organization’s mission to foster community, embrace diversity, and create accessibility to classical music.

But this summer, accessibility takes a different spin. Instead of live concerts at the DCR’s Hatch Memorial Shell, the ensemble will stream performances right into audiences’ living rooms on July 15 and 29. “Everyone will have a front-row seat, and we won’t need to worry about the weather or the sound of passing motorcycles,” says music director Christopher Wilkins.


Instead, the 18 instrumentalists involved are dealing with a different challenge — making music together while socially distanced, with everyone who can wearing masks, and brass and wind players behind plexiglass shields. Despite the plethora of virtual performances out there, the project has marked most of the players’ first time in months performing face to face. “Chamber music requires a lot of intimacy and the proximity to read body language, to read intention from a breath,” says orchestra violist Ashleigh Gordon. “So we’ll have to be adaptable to do it with different [spacing] and face masks. But as unsettling as coming together in a shared space can be, it’s also exciting.”

And how might quality be affected? “As performers, we bring our full hearts to the stage, and I don’t see that changing,” she says.

The technical challenges are not insignificant, however. Taping is taking place in Futura Productions’ 60-by-38-foot state-of-the-art recording studio, the main room of a former Masonic Lodge in Roslindale, with certain trumpet and English horn solos recorded in advance on a Beacon Hill rooftop near the Hatch Shell. Audio engineer Steve Colby, who also does a lot of the orchestra’s production management, says the goal is to place everyone in a way that they can hear each other and make a good musical blend. He will meld sound in the moment from the mixing board, “Chasing balances to keep it consistent,” he says. “We came up with a template for how much room players would need around them and then had a nice game of Tetrus to see how to make everyone fit. But honestly, we’ve all been in the starting block just champing at the bit to do something. If anyone can make sense of it, it’s this really strong group of people.” He says video cameras will be strategically placed to evoke the visuals of “a miniature TV show.”


Boston Landmarks player Dana Oakes, on trumpet, and Andrew Price, on English horn, recorded solos on a Beacon Hill rooftop.
Boston Landmarks player Dana Oakes, on trumpet, and Andrew Price, on English horn, recorded solos on a Beacon Hill rooftop.Boston Landmarks Orchestra

The project is an ambitious pivot for the orchestra, but one Co-Executive Directors Mary Deissler and Arthur Rishi believe is an important adaptation to the current moment, a way for the orchestra to continue to foster its rich history of inclusivity. The two virtual concerts will later be released with closed captioning for intros and interviews, part of the organization’s Breaking Down Barriers Accessibility Initiative. Links to all programming will be available via www.landmarksorchestra.org.

Wilkins programmed the two concerts not just with distancing protocols in mind, but with relevance to the moment. The all-American “Simple Gifts” program, streaming July 15, is anchored by classics by two unmistakably American composers — Scott Joplin’s “Treemonisha” and Aaron Copland’s suites from “Appalachian Spring” and “Quiet City.” They bookend recent works by two Black contemporary composers that Wilkins says are at the forefront of American musical life: Valerie Coleman and Jeff Scott, both of whom infuse music with lively vernacular elements, from African folk song to big band and bebop. “This concert is very much about new beginnings, starting fresh, rethinking the idea of American music,” he says.


The second concert, “Dances and Delights,” streams on July 29. It features works by five composers of color, ranging from a “Boogie Woogie” by the late American jazz composer David Baker to excerpts of Florence Price’s “Five Folksongs in Counterpoint” to tangos by the great Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla, from his “The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires.” The concert is produced in partnership with Castle of our Skins, an organization directed by Gordon dedicated to fostering cultural curiosity and celebrating Black musical artistry.

The hope is that these two concerts are just the beginning for Landmarks, and Wilkins is already exploring ideas for possible additional programming — indoors or out. It’s all about spreading the joy of music to everyone, he says. “If you want to bring classical music to all people, you have to think open-mindedly about how programs might come across who haven’t been exposed to classical music. We’re about accessibility in every way we can imagine.”


“Simple Gifts,” July 15, 7-8 p.m.

“Dances and Delights,”July 29, 7-8 p.m.

Streaming via landmarksorchestra.org

Karen Campbell can be reached at karencampbell4@rcn.com.