When Boston Landmarks Orchestra music director Christopher Wilkins remembers summer 2020, his first thought is the sadness: the loss of livelihood for the orchestra’s musicians, the disconnection from its audience, the cloud of greater tragedy hanging over it all. Then he remembers the scramble to film concerts and get them online, with string players masked and winds cocooned in plexiglass cages. He remembers the struggle to replicate Landmarks’ hometown roots for the unmoored, hyper-saturated landscape of virtual concerts.
Until recently, he wasn’t sure if he would lead the orchestra through another virtual or hybrid season this summer. “We were getting kind of excited about the possibilities, but it sure isn’t what we [usually] do,” he said in a recent phone interview.
But the tide turned quickly, starting with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s mid-May announcement that vaccinated people no longer needed masks in most settings. The orchestra jumped into action to prepare for live concerts with live audiences. But Landmarks leadership still wasn’t sure whether their favorite summer venue, the DCR Hatch Shell, would be available, so tentative plans were made for concerts in various other indoor and outdoor settings. In early June, official word arrived from state government that the Hatch Shell would be available. From there, it was full steam ahead for the orchestra, which announced a six-week Esplanade season earlier this month.
Not all is as it was, or as Landmarks might like it to be in the future. Unlike past summers, the ensemble isn’t doing extensive residencies with camps and youth programs since vaccines aren’t yet available to those under age 12. But on the whole, it’s a joyful homecoming, not a stopgap.
The first concert, on Aug. 4 pairs Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 with music by Gershwin, Massenet, Florence Price, William Grant Still, James P. Johnson, and Nkeiru Okoye. Following weeks include “Music and Healing,” a concert exploring the connection of music and dance through works by Ellington, Rachmaninoff, Coleridge-Taylor, and more (Aug. 11); a symphonic winds concert (Aug. 25); and an all-American season finale featuring music by Gershwin, Copland, Still, George Chadwick, Priscilla Alden Beach, and the world premiere of Francine Trester’s “A Walk in Her Shoes” (Sept. 1). All concerts are free.
Inclusion of music by composers of color was vital in planning the season, Wilkins said. Music by women also appears on many programs. “Access and inclusion is always what Landmarks have been about, and a greatly deepened commitment to those priorities is what we’ve come out [of the pandemic] with.”
Same goes for partnerships with local organizations including the Longwood Symphony Orchestra and Mercury Orchestra (taking the stage for an Aug. 18 concert) and a host of dance companies for the “Music and Healing” program, including Boston Ballet II, Peter DiMuro/Public Displays of Motion, and first-time Landmarks partner Urbanity Dance.
For its performance to Arturo Márquez’s “Danzon No. 2,” Urbanity plans to pull in dancers of all ages, including students from its summer intensive and participants in its “Dance with Parkinson’s” program, said founder and director Betsi Graves. “I’ve always enjoyed [Landmarks Orchestra’s] dance night,” she said. “It’s definitely a dream to be able to choreograph and perform something myself.”
At every level, from professional to pure hobbyist, these dancers are taking tentative first steps back to studio and stage. “For this performance with Landmarks, I’m really adjusting to meet where each dancer is at,” Graves said of the choreography.
Because the space everyone had for dancing varied so widely over the past year, everyone is uniquely reacclimating to movement. “There won’t be a whole lot of unison,” Graves explained. “There will be more moments like: Oh, this is how your body is working, so let’s bring that individuality and find ways to make that collectively interesting.”
The quick shift back to unmasked life left her feeling dizzy, Graves continued. “One day we’re all socially distant and masked, then the next day we were totally back to normal. I think with dance, especially because we serve a variety of ages, it will be a slow growth.”
Slow or not, returning to live performance is giving artists new spark. “We’ve been staring at each other on screens for so long,” summed up Wilkins. “Just to hug and be together initially, and then that first sound of live music coming together — it’s amazing.”
BOSTON LANDMARKS ORCHESTRA
At DCR Hatch Shell, Charles River Esplanade. 7 p.m. Wednesdays, Aug. 4 - Sept. 1. www.landmarksorchestra.org
A.Z. Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.