The Leventritt Garden offers a fitting setting for filming the Boston Children’s Chorus

Against a glorious backdrop of beech and maple colors, the Leventritt Shrub & Vine Garden at the Arnold Arboretum served as studio, scenery, stage, and musical oasis for a filming with more than 90 members of the Boston Children’s Chorus (BCC) in early November. Although frost covered the lawns and leaves with sparkling patterns, the performers (aged 7-12 years) were able to shed winter coats, first with encouragement and later with abandon, as the sun appeared to warm people and plants.

With their theme Now is the Time focusing on environmental justice, BCC is exploring “various aspects of how environmental change impacts vulnerable populations,” according to Executive Producer, Robbie Jacobs. “[We are] working to add BCC’s voices to the chorus of people clamoring for drastic and meaningful change.”

children in front of trees
Young members of Boston Children’s Chorus prepare for filming in the Leventritt Shrub and Vine Garden.

With COVID restrictions still in place, everyone was masked until the filming began. Singers then removed their masks and lip-synced to songs under the direction of BCC Conductors Destiny Cooper and John Martha-Reynolds. Each singer was tasked with later recording their voices on their phones to accompany the visuals.

“We think that as a place to showcase the beauty of the natural world, the Arboretum is second to none. We were able to capture the distinctive New England fall colors as the backdrop for sharing our message and [were] delighted to partner with our ecologically minded friends at the Arboretum to share this critical message about preserving the environment for generations to come.”

Robbie Jacobs, Executive Producer, Boston Children’s Chorus

Filming began with 28 of the youngest performers interpreting the evocative But a Flint Holds Fire by Andrea Ramsey, a Colorado composer, conductor, and music educator commissioned to write this music with lyrics based on the titular Christina Rosetti poem. As a choral undertaking, the piece was written in collaboration with students in Flint, Michigan to raise awareness of the Flint Water Crisis. It tells the story of how lead poisoning from the Flint River primarily affected communities of color, and government negligence in addressing the crisis.

Many children standing in rows on lawn and stairs
All of the Boston Children’s Chorus are filmed showcasing But a Flint Holds Fire by Andrea Ramsey.

Civilization’s tension with the natural world and our responsibility to protect it was also reflected in a choral arrangement of Joni Mitchell’s 1970 Big Yellow Taxi, a piece alternately referred to by its memorable chorus: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Recorded by 509 artists so far, BCC brought their own style and expertise to the popular song.

Grouped on the Leventritt Garden landing near the pavilion, the kids began with the quiet power of But a Flint Holds Fire. Moving one by one down to the lawn, they switched to Taxi with its “catchy melody that seems almost at odds with the content matter,” as Jacobs puts it. The bright sounds of Taxi complemented the children’s visual medley of primary-colored shirts and their joyful movements to the refrain of “Oh, bop, bop bop.”

Many children on lawn with trees behind them
Boston Children’s Chorus, masked and rehearsing for the filming of Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi.

As filming wrapped up, the production staff prepared to do their magic in capturing close-ups of individual performers to combine with the large and small group shots filmed by Jacobs and Associate Producer, Patrick Hanafin. The finished piece will be screened at BCC’s flagship event at Boston Symphony Hall on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, January 17. For the Arnold Arboretum, it was a privilege to host the BCC and contribute to their choral statement in support of social and environmental justice.

“This season, in alignment with our environmental focus, we are examining the final days of Dr. King’s life, when he allied with sanitation workers in Memphis to campaign for better working conditions, and reflecting on how MLK’s work has created the basis for the modern day climate justice movement.”

Robbie Jacobs