Orchestra celebrates architect Olmsted

Michael Dukakis narrated “The Story of Frederick Law Olmsted’’ at the Hatch Shell. Michael Dukakis narrated “The Story of Frederick Law Olmsted’’ at the Hatch Shell. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / September 5, 2009

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On Wednesday night, the Boston Landmarks Orchestra was out to teach.

Since 2003, the group has commissioned a series of narrator-and-orchestra works showcasing Boston history; its latest (premiered earlier this summer), Thomas Oboe Lee’s “The Story of Frederick Law Olmsted,’’ telling of the pioneering 19th-century landscape architect, received both an introduction by Olmsted scholar Charles Beveridge and narration by former governor Michael Dukakis (whose administration shepherded a restoration of the Olmsted-designed Emerald Necklace). Class was in session on the Esplanade.

Nancy Stevenson’s text (that’s Stevenson, as in the Illinois political dynasty, incidentally) was didactically forthright, sketching Olmsted’s life as a parable of public service. Lee’s music evoked more than illustrated, with marches and pastoral hymns of a decidedly Gilded Age cast, a wind-up galop for Olmsted’s building, a burbling reel for the children’s play.

Guest conductor Beatrice Affron gave the nostalgia nice point, and kept an ideal pace for Dukakis’s clear, fluently sincere narration. The piece was effective in its modest charm: In the ensuing applause, a nearby lawn patron could be heard expressing her surprise at discovering that Olmsted designed New York’s Central Park. Mission accomplished.

The rest of the program, titled “Green Masterpieces,’’ maintained at least a thread of connection to the natural world. The duck calls and bird whistles of the “Toy Symphony’’ (attributed to Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang’s father) were enough of an excuse for its deadpan silliness; Claude Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun’’ paints a nature more mythical than real, but the casually lovely reading was worth it. Affron led vigorous readings of Mendelssohn’s “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage’’ and Handel’s “Water Music’’ in representation of the blue planet. A pair of swans - Saint-Saëns’ (from “The Carnival of the Animals,’’ delineated by cellist Jolene Kessler and harpist Ina Zdorovetchi with gentle expressiveness), and Tchaikovsky’s (the Act II Waltz from “Swan Lake,’’ an encore) - completed the animal delegation.

The evening’s main drawback, ironically, was the location, or at least the statehouse logic that put Storrow Drive a mere stone’s throw from the Hatch Shell; the traffic’s white-noise rumble and the necessitated amplification robbed the sound of forgiving warmth. The concert proper closed with the rather more militant environmentalism of Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,’’ and it was satisfying to imagine Olmsted’s ghost rising up, “Fantasia’’-style, to smite the horseless carriage.

That would teach them.


Beatrice Affron, conductor; Michael Dukakis, narrator

At: Hatch Shell, Esplanade, Wednesday

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