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Beloved Conductor’s Legacy Of Free Concerts Lives On

Boston Landmarks Orchestra founding conductor Charles Ansbacher, in his last concert before he died last year (Courtesy Landmarks Orchestra)

Boston Landmarks Orchestra founding conductor Charles Ansbacher, in his last concert before he died last year (Courtesy Landmarks Orchestra)

BOSTON — Wednesday night the Boston Landmarks Orchestra kicks off its 11th season of free, weekly concerts at the Hatch Shell on the Esplanade. It marks the nonprofit’s first full summer without founding Music Director Charles Ansbacher.

Ansbacher, a beloved “musical ambassador” to the world, died last September at age 67. But a lot of people are involved in making sure his legacy continues. Earlier this week, nearly 40 members of the orchestra rehearsed for the first time with their new music director, Christopher Wilkins.

“I think it’s good,” he told the players from the podium, adding, “but I think our approach is a little bit heavy.”

Ansbacher founded the orchestra in 2000 as a gift to Boston. Known for wearing colorful vests at the podium, he made free, high-quality orchestral performances accessible to everyone.

They moved forward, combing through pieces by Mozart, section by section, with four guest vocalists. Bass singer Robert Honeysucker of Cambridge was one of them. During a break he admitted that he might choke up beneath the stage lights at the Hatch Shell.

“Although Christopher is a wonderful conductor, and seemingly a great person, you know, there’s only one Charles, and so we will miss that,” he said.

Jeff Makholm, chairman of the Landmarks’ board of trustees, was at the rehearsal, too.

“The founder will always be there,” he said affectionately. “Charles Ansbacher, founder, will be on all of our printed materials. We will always remember him.”

While this is an emotional time, Makholm is grateful for the months they all have had to process Ansbacher’s death. Now, he said, “we have to make sure our players and trustees and the institution that he began and that he nurtured will continue on.”

Ansbacher founded the orchestra in 2000 as a gift to Boston. Known for wearing colorful vests at the podium, he made free, high-quality orchestral performances accessible to everyone — at the Hatch Shell, but also at parks in Charlestown, Jamaica Plain and Roxbury. After being diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, Ansbacher and his wife Swanee Hunt created a the Free For All Concert Fund to make sure the orchestra would live on. That’s also when the founding conductor asked Makholm, a dear friend, to chair Landmark’s board. They bonded over a shared love of music, of Boston, and of old, wooden boats.

New Landmarks conductor Christopher Wilkins (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

New Landmarks conductor Christopher Wilkins (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

“People who sail old wooden boats have a bit of a screw loose,” Makholm explained with a laugh, “they’re so hard to maintain. But he liked it, and I liked it, and we did that together — and indeed last October some of his ashes went into Buzzards Bay.”

Wilkins, Ansbacher’s successor, also has deep roots in Boston. Makholm said those connections had a lot to do with why he and the other trustees selected him. Wilkins went to Harvard College, and actually shared a dorm room with Gov. Deval Patrick in high school at Milton Academy.

And, as Makholm points out, the conductor walked in Charles Ansbacher’s shoes once before. “Oddly enough, when Charles left his longtime gig as the conductor of the Colorado Springs Symphony, Chris was the one who followed him there.”

These days Wilkins also conducts the Orlando Philharmonic and Akron Symphony Orchestras. Last summer he came to Boston a few times to help lead the Landmarks Orchestra when Ansbacher didn’t have the strength to do full concerts on his own. Wilkins also shared the podium with Ansbacher at the historic free Fenway Park performance in front of 15,000 people.

“He carried us all last summer,” Wilkins reflected. “I think at a time when many others would’ve sat down or retreated or stayed in their bedroom, he was conducting and on stage at the Hatch Shell virtually right to the end.”

Wilkins said he’s watched his predecessor from a distance for years, and said he’s learned a lot from Ansbacher.

“Charles set the tone, which is engines full steam ahead, we know what our purpose and our mission is and we’re going to carry it out no matter what,” Wilkins said.

Wilkins will lead the orchestra in an all-Mozart program for Wednesday night’s concert, but it won’t include the composer’s “Requiem,” as some might expect. One of the three pieces is the “Mass in C Minor.”

Landmarks Orchestra at rehearsal (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

“Mozart wrote it for his own wedding so it’s a very celebratory work, whereas the ‘Requiem,’ I know as soon as we started the ‘Requiem’ we all just would’ve been thinking of Charles,” Wilkins said, “and that isn’t the main point of the summer, the main point of the summer is to carry Charles’ vision forward.”

Keith Powers, classical music reviewer for the Boston Herald, approves of Wilkins’ choice in music.

“It’s a remembrance of Charles, but not really a mourning in the strictest sense,” Powers said.

Powers met me at the Hatch Shell on a recent afternoon. He told me he’s been coming here with friends and family to see Ansbacher and his orchestra since the beginning.

“Everyone wants to feel irreplaceable, and I think Charles actually managed that,” he said.

That said, Powers looks forward to watching Wilkins — a highly accomplished conductor — engage with Boston audiences Wednesday night.

At the rehearsal I attended it was clear that Wilkins is a passionate musicmaker. He’s physical and connects with the players. And while the Boston Landmarks Orchestra’s concert Wednesday night is not a memorial for its founder, Makholm said Ansbacher will be on the Esplanade in spirit.

“I may even wear one of those storied vests that he used to wear when he conducted the orchestra. I have one of a handful,” he said.

Landmarks’ new conductor, Wilkins, said he’ll be wearing a traditional white tux.

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