Historical work loses its anchor
When the Boston Landmarks Orchestra lives up to its middle name, it has what ad executives in the 1950s called a unique selling proposition. On Tuesday, conductor Charles Ansbacher's group premiered a piece about the venerable USS Constitution, backed by a blush-pink sunset glinting off the ship herself. You can't ask for better product placement.
"David and 'Old Ironsides,' " the latest in the group's ongoing commissioning of kid-friendly works for narrator and ensemble, tells the true story of David DeBias, an African-American from Beacon Hill's North Slope community of freemen, who joined the ship's crew at the age of 8 and saw action in the War of 1812.
Boston composer Larry Thomas Bell's music starts out promisingly, contrasting a jaunty contrapuntal hornpipe with dramatic, tremulous strings. The thematic basis is "The Star-Spangled Banner": The triadic cast of the tune's first seven notes is reflected in a frankly tonal harmonic language that gives way to an expansive richness as the young DeBias is bewitched by the bustle of Boston Harbor.
But as the story goes to sea, so does the piece. Constance Leeds's text, narrated here with strong cadence and boyish enthusiasm by the Rev. Ray Hammond, occasionally effectively puts us in DeBias's shoes, but she gets bogged down with ships' names and battle chronology. Bell's music, too, wanders, although amplification may have dulled its effect; he uses the string section as nearly constant accompaniment, a busy backdrop for a small cohort of winds and brass, but microphones pushed the strings into high, metallic relief, resulting in a monochromatic glaze.
The decision to largely alternate music and narration fragmented the momentum. And while Bell's prerecorded cannon blasts were impressively visceral, he deployed them far too often. Still, Leeds and Bell deserve credit for not glossing over the story's epilogue -- DeBias, later a merchant marine, was arrested as a purported fugitive slave in Mississippi in 1838, after which his historical trail goes cold.
Also on the program was a previous commission, Julian Wach-ner's 2004 setting of Longfellow's "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" (given a conversational reading by WCRB announcer Ray Brown), which combines music and narration far more cogently. Wachner sets up an ostinato-driven vocabulary that lets the orchestra fall into intricate, repeated vamps while text is spoken, so the musical thread remains unbroken. He also isn't afraid to let a solo line sustain the poem's atmosphere on the strength of instrumental color.
After the stately naval tradition of the evening posting of colors, the concert closed with a summery, early Mozart string divertimento (K. 136); Ansbacher and the players seemed to aim for nuance that again fell victim to technology. The evening curiously opened with a Waltz and Pantomime from Dmitri Kabalevskys music for The Comedians, in a properly grim, grotesque rendition, but it set up a sparkling encore, the far more famous Galop from the same suite, sharp-elbowed but light on its feet.