Ahoy There, Orchestra!

A musical troupe debuts its unconventional setting - and director - in Europe. ON-THE-WATER MUSIC

`WHEN I came out there tonight, the first thing I heard was: `The anchors aren't holding!''' says Robert Boudreau, music director and founder of the American Waterways Wind Orchestra. Not too many orchestral conductors are confronted with non-holding anchors minutes before the opening bars. But if your orchestra is afloat, then things aren't necessarily conventional. Mr. Boudreau is not, however, easily thrown. After three decades of conducting the Pittsburgh-based orchestra, he faces drifting anchors with equanimity.

``That sort of thing doesn't cause me any distress, because I've been in the business a long time. If the anchors don't hold, you know you just have to move the concert site!''

Fifteen minutes later this unusual-looking, modern showboat or ``floating concert experience'' - designed by architect Louis Kahn - is tied up to a London Plane tree on the Thames riverbank. The boat's large lid slowly lifts up like something from an alien galaxy, and there's the orchestra, dramatically uncovered. It strikes up with an ebullience and zest not in the least dampened by the late start.

The invited audience of locals don't mind. They happily munch chicken and cole slaw - on the house. This unusual cultural gathering of London East-Enders is a cross-section of the Isle of Dogs community - usually not known for its concert-going. The Isle of Dogs, situated in a loop of the meandering Thames, is not really an island, and is only tenuously connected with things canine.

One local resident thought King Charles might have kept his hunting dogs in the vicinity. More likely, though, she added, the name is a corruption of ``The Isle of Dykes.'' Either way, it has been dockland, but is now dereliction being turned into offices and apartments - a gigantic building site, a forest of cranes and skeletal half-buildings. Understandably, the populace feels threatened.

One of the largest of the developers is Olympia & York, a Canadian firm sponsoring tonight's concert. Clearly, the free event is meant to show that the firm has a human face - which, by all accounts, it does.

Conductor Boudreau, building cultural bridges across a narrow, intervening water channel, is so relaxed that he thinks nothing of wandering offstage as a piece starts, and reappearing as it ends.

``They don't need me out there some of the time,'' he explains. ``I have to go get different things.''

His orchestra is 50 strong. It's largely composed of wind instruments, with percussion, piano, harpsichord, and harp for good measure (but no other strings attached). It is virtually new each year, made up of professional musicians as enthusiastic as they are young - mainly American, but not exclusively.

This is the final concert of the orchestra's first-ever European tour that started in mid-May and brought its music to 10 nations and 30 cities including, rather spectacularly, Leningrad.

The orchestra boat did not make its own way across the Atlantic from the US (where it has plied the river systems for years), but was brought over in a Dutch drydock ship. Since then it has been under its own power.

Their repertoire embraces anything from Handel's Fireworks Music (with real fireworks), to a suite of Stephen Foster folk songs, to Scott Joplin's ragtime, to a ``Russian Capriccio'' commissioned from Soviet composer Andrei Petrov, to a humorous song, tonight, about the Isle of Dogs being overrun by Yuppies. (Or was it puppies?)

Boudreau has a nonchalant, disarming way with his audience. It's not the kind of approach one often encounters in the Albert Hall. Introducing a number that weaves its wind-blown way round the theme of ``Down By the Riverside,'' he says: ``Now in the States ... the audience generally shouts `One More Time!' at the end. So ... let's try it. ... Uh-huh. Again! ... Right.''

The East-Enders take to such tactics like ducks to water. And they clap along, and sing along, and whistle, and shout ``One More Time'' one more time.

This bonhomie is authentic, but not quite as spontaneous as it might appear. This is because of Boudreau's philosophy to promote international goodwill. He has even been knighted by the King of Sweden for such goodwill.

``Hundreds of people get involved when we come,'' he says. ``It's not just us coming for a concert, and people buy tickets, and then they go away. We live in their homes. We've been organizing it with them for about a year, now. There must be 30 or 40 people from the community who are actively involved - moving the boats or tying the lines, or setting up the seats, or providing food. So this becomes their project. And that's what's so meaningful.''

This policy of local involvement also took place in Leningrad - a sign of the changing times in the Soviet Union. But it's also a sign of Boudreau's style: ``I said if we come here, I would like you to consider housing all of our musicians in private homes.'' He also asked if he could have some Soviet artwork aboard, and added that he would appreciate 25,000 gallons of diesel fuel in payment, since he couldn't use rubles. (The Soviets gave him even more fuel than that.) He requested one Soviet musician to play in his orchestra on tour. Finally, he wanted to commission a work from a Soviet composer. The official he spoke with, Boudreau noted, looked at him as if he were mad.

But after three or more months, Leningrad agreed to all his requests. So from July 28 to August 2, Point Counterpoint II docked in Leningrad.

`NEXT year,'' Boudreau says, ``we've been invited to go back to Leningrad, and we're going to go to Tallinn in Estonia, and Gadenia [USSR] near Gdansk [Poland].'' Concerts will take place in the Baltic Sea next year, and in the Mediterranean in 1991.

The verdict on the Isle of Dogs concert? ``We didn't know whether it would work here,'' says Mari James, vice-president of public affairs at Olympia & York. ``It's been a big success.'' She also had high praise for the orchestra's visits to local schools. ``Tonight was the culmination. It was like one big party,'' she said. Ms. James says the local people never would have come to something sponsored by her unpopular firm two years ago, or come to hear an American orchestra. When someone from the community asked her what Olympia & York got out of the concert, she replied: ``The fact that you are talking to me.''

Peter Wade, who lives on the Isle of Dogs, was a youth and community worker in the area for 29 years. He vigorously opposed the redevelopment program in the dockland. Today, he is a community relations officer for Olympia & York. His comment on the orchestra's visit was simple and gruff: ``Marvellous, absolutely marvellous. ...'' The Isle of Dogs, he reckons, has been ``culturally starved. ... Everything's been established in the West End, and that's a bit far, and it's a bit expensive.'' But, he says, the East End does appreciate music.

``And if they do they'll show you. And if they don't they'll show you that, too. That was honest tonight, totally honest.''

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