Boston Landmarks Orchestra makes a splash with 'Ducklings'

By Richard Dyer, Globe Staff, 6/23/2003

Daniel Pinkham's delightful take on ''Make Way For Ducklings'' had one and three-quarters world premieres on the Boston Common Saturday afternoon.

The official premiere began at 4 p.m. in an atmosphere of misty festivity but was halted by the rain just as Mrs. Mallard and her eight ducklings were moving down Charles Street toward the Public Garden. At that dangerous moment in Robert McCloskey's classic tale, the clouds burst and conductor Charles Ansbacher had to stop narrator Ray Brown and the Boston Landmarks Orchestra - rain is bad news for expensive string instruments.

Before the abortive premiere Mayor Thomas M. Menino greeted the cheerful audience full of small children holding rubber duckies that had been distributed to them along with programs. A graduate of the civics class at the Dean S. Luce School in Canton, which had sponsored a bill to name ''Make Way For Ducklings'' the official Massachusetts book last year, spoke about that experience, and Nancy Schoen, sculptor of the bronze ducklings across the street in the Public Garden, took a bow. And Ansbacher led lively performances of a couple of perky pieces from Kabalevsky's ''The Comedians.''

Fortunately at 5:30 p.m., a complete premiere took place as scheduled; without speeches and introductions and Kabalevsky, the piece ended just as it started to rain again.

In one respect the composer's obvious model is Prokofiev's ''Peter and the Wolf.'' The narrator tells a story with musical illustrations that also provide an educational view of the instruments and sections of the orchestra and a sense of how composers put music together to make it work - the oboe is Mrs. Mallard, the clarinet Mr. Mallard, a brass grouping the policeman Michael with peanuts in his pocket. Each character in the story has a theme, and the themes develop and interact; especially charming is the ascending scale on the glockenspiel with a little rhythmic flourish on the end that Pinkham devised to depict the ducklings.

A less obvious model is Ravel's enchanting children's opera ''L'enfant et les sortileges.'' What makes Pinkham's piece work is that it is more than illustration; it extends the dimension of wistful, nostalgic sweetness that McCloskey wrote (and drew) into the story and that it has continued to accumulate through the generations of children and adults who have loved it since 1941. The piece dances along, often with a light jazzy feel; it opens with a tango and near the end there is a lovely little waltz. After everyone falls asleep on a happy little island, the music ends in a rush of wings.

WCRB's Brown offered a forthright but nuanced reading of the text. Ansbacher's conducting looks angular, but he didn't square the piece off; the music lilted its way into the heart. When the text and music described ''an extra swing in [Mrs. Mallard's] waddle,'' small children stood and danced, and I'll bet the ducks paddling in Frog Pond were loving it too.

Boston Landmarks Orchestra

Charles Ansbacher, conductor

At: the Boston Common, Saturday

Repeats through Aug. 23.



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