This summer is Christopher Wilkins’s first as music director of Boston Landmarks Orchestra, which has been performing free outdoor concerts at Boston’s DCR Hatch Memorial Shell since its founding in 2001. Wilkins—who is also music director of Akron Symphony in Ohio and the Orlando Philharmonic in Florida—is only the group’s second music director, a position he takes over from founder Charles Ansbacher, who died in September 2010.
As the Boston Landmarks Orchestra prepared for its season-opening all-Mozart concert on July 13, Wilkins spoke to SymphonyNOW about the orchestra’s unique civic role; the importance of collaborations; the ways the orchestra is working to lower barriers to access to concerts; and the importance of strong relationships with the local community.
Below, view photos of the orchestra and watch a clip from the Boston Landmarks Orchestra’s July 11 rehearsal of Mozart’s Mass in C Minor. (Video courtesy of Andrea Shea, Arts and Culture Reporter, WBUR 90.9, Boston’s NPR news station, with permission from the Boston Musicians’ Association.)
Jennifer Melick: In a city teeming with classical musicians and orchestral alternatives, what special civic impact do you hope to make with the Boston Landmarks Orchestra?
Christopher Wilkins: Charles Ansbacher’s idea in creating the Boston Landmarks Orchestra was that great music can be a meeting point for community. Many conductors and orchestras make similar statements, but few follow the idea through to the extent that Charles did. He found deep rewards in conducting in parts of the world that many Americans would be afraid to visit, including, most remarkably, war zones. Maestro Ansbacher took the Boston Landmarks Orchestra into some of the most unlikely venues and neighborhoods in Boston in order to reach people—young people especially—who are starved for experiences in the arts. The board, musicians, and I are committed to sustaining and extending Charles’s vision by creating new programs to connect with diverse audiences. We are excited to perform in Boston’s ethnically varied neighborhoods and to bring people from all walks of life to the Hatch Shell to join with us on Boston’s Esplanade.
Melick: The New Philharmonic Orchestra, Longwood Symphony Orchestra, New World Chorale, Boston Lyric Opera, and Chinese Performing Arts Foundation are some of your collaborators for this season’s concerts. How important are collaborations for the Boston Landmarks Orchestra?
Wilkins: Collaborations are at the heart of what we do. This too was a very “Charles” idea. Collaborative work is something you must do with open arms and an open heart. There is the community-building aspect. In the process of coming together, one enjoys the combined support and attention of both organizations and all of their followers. The Longwood Symphony has been Boston’s medical community orchestra for many years. Medical care is one of Boston’s greatest contributions to the world, along with the arts and education. Charles loved the synergy that follows naturally from combining people of different backgrounds and passions. Most collaboration also involves some mixture of medium and message. We will never look so good on the stage of the Hatch Shell as we will on August 31, when we collaborate with the Boston Ballet in excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, and The Nutcracker! Last season’s collaboration with the Boston Lyric Opera proved to be the biggest draw of the year. Part of the reason, surely, was the inclusion of the dramatic element.
“For us, absolute access is at the heart of our mission.”
Christopher Wilkins, music director, Boston Landmarks Orchestra
Melick: All Boston Landmarks Orchestra concerts are free. How important is this aspect of the Boston Landmarks Orchestra mission, and who do you envision as your audience?
Wilkins: The Boston Landmarks Orchestra is about two things: great music and access. Orchestras everywhere are thinking about how they can lower barriers to access. Cost of attendance is among the first disincentives that people mention. While the truth is that most American orchestras can be heard for little more than the price of admission to a movie, that perception is still of critical importance. For us, absolute access is at the heart of our mission. Therefore, “free” is built into the system. In Charles’s final months he and his wife, Swanee Hunt, vigorously pursued a plan to build an endowment supporting his vision. Significantly—and playfully—the fund they created together is called The Free for All Concert Fund.
Melick: The Boston Landmarks Orchestra will be performing concerts for children this summer in Dorchester and Roxbury, a collaboration with Project STEP. What is Project STEP?
Wilkins: Project STEP was founded by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1982 to build greater inclusion and ethnic diversity in the profession. I recall thinking at the time that to accomplish what they set out to do, the commitment would need to remain strong and constant for decades. Well, here it is nearly 30 years later, it’s as strong as ever, and the impact it has had can be seen in the generations of young musicians it has trained. I have greatly enjoyed planning our educational concerts with Mariana Green-Hill, Project STEP’s artistic director. Mariana is a Project STEP graduate and has performed as soloist with the Boston Landmarks Orchestra. This summer we will feature six to eight of Project STEP’s top students, performing concerto movements with the orchestra, as well as some Latin dances that will invite participation from the audience. Our third partner is the Boys and Girls Clubs of Boston, who have been our generous hosts for some years, including for our performances on August 17 and 18 in Dorchester and Roxbury.
Melick: Are there lessons on connecting with local communities that you have learned from your work as music director of the Orlando Philharmonic and the Akron Symphony?
Wilkins: One of the most exciting aspects of community-based programming for me is the opportunity to form not just new relationships, but new kinds of relationships. I love to find things for people to do—ways that they can perform with us, for instance. Our audiences have many capacities beyond simply sitting there and listening. In both Akron and Orlando, we mounted fully staged productions of Porgy and Bess, with costumes, sets, lights. The entire cast was chosen from auditions held in our communities, with the exception of four or five of the principals. The cast was made up of music teachers, choir directors, members of neighborhood music organizations, university and high school students, and people who may have always hoped to do something on the stage but never had the chance. We just had a reunion of the Akron cast. I don’t know that there was any more cheering or tears of joy to be found anywhere in the city of Boston when the Bruins won the Stanley Cup this June, than there was in Akron that night.