A night to remember with the Boston Landmarks Orchestra

October 1, 2016 | Maria Daniels

On Saturday night, October 1, revelers at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel marked the 15th anniversary of the Boston Landmarks Orchestra, renowned for its free summertime concerts on the Charles River Esplanade.

The gala honored Swanee Hunt and music director Christopher Wilkins, who burned up the parquet to James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good).”

Video: The Boston Globe called this dance the highlight of the evening.

Political pundit and Harvard Kennedy School colleague David Gergen offered an affectionate salute to Swanee as well as fond memories of her late husband, Landmarks founder and conductor Charles Ansbacher.

Gergen brought a serious note to the evening as he forecast a Hillary Clinton victory in the November election — and suggested a top priority for the next administration:

“Ever since I’ve known [Swanee Hunt], she’s been a pioneer in trying to empower women around the world. She makes the argument, in an important way, that the most important way we could spend our aid dollars, the most important thing we do could improve the lives of people around the world, is to educate and empower more women and look after their children and give them more opportunities.

I really believe that if Mrs. Clinton wins, one of the most important things she can do is bring to the forefront of American foreign policy a campaign to empower women.

Hillary Clinton is uniquely qualified to make that a major plank. We have talked about that in the past, and Swanee has been leading that effort, but we have never made it central. And it would do so much to advance the world, but it would also restore America’s moral standing as a country that believes in better things and opening up opportunities and really making a difference.”

Swanee prepared a tongue-in-cheek bio of herself for the event, which Gergen shared with the audience in part:

Raised as a Southern Baptist belle, little Swanee Hunt learned to sing soprano, alto, and tenor in the same stanza of The Old Rugged Cross, jumping from one part to the other like fleas on a dog. (She once brought her poodle to church in a big purse.) The Lennon Sisters had nothing on the three Hunt Sisters, as they rendered “There’s Power in the Blood” with their power in the chord.

Meeting the conductor of the Colorado Springs Symphony when she was 35 sent her to hog heaven (to continue two dubious metaphors). Her parents being both raised on farms (hence the fleas and the hog), she had to ask Charles on their first date what the long black instrument behind the violas was. Enjoying that he recognized an oboe and she didn’t, he accepted her proposal of marriage.

When she was US Ambassador to Austria, she became deeply involved in trying to stop the Balkan war of the early 1990s. She once lodged herself in the doorway of David Gergen’s State Department office, trying her damndest (she now had a doctorate in theology) to persuade Washington to intervene in the genocide there. Among many other significant involvements, she hosted successful negotiations between two of the three warring parties. Knowing music brings hope to people traumatized by years of war, while Charles was becoming the Principal Guest Conductor of the Sarajevo Philharmonic, Ambassador Hunt was persuading Austrians to part with 8,000 tons of musical instruments (including 30 accordions–really), which were delivered to 22 destroyed schools and orchestras.

She had to ask Charles what the long black instrument behind the violas was. Enjoying that he recognized an oboe and she didn’t, he accepted her proposal of marriage.David Gergenon Swanee Hunt

Charles and Swanee were an accomplished duet. Every place he performed, from Warsaw to Hanoi, Moscow to Johannesburg, she worked with top women leaders, coaching them in strategies for their advancement in decision-making. Her work has taken her to more than 60 countries. Here in the Boston area, Hunt Alternatives has continued the thirty-years commitment to the arts as a vehicle for social change, particularly in depressed urban neighborhoods.

Dr. Hunt is the Eleanor Roosevelt Lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where she has taught for 18 years. But in a secret life, she is an artist herself. In addition to the hour-long cantata she has composed (performed in several countries), her photographs have been exhibited in six one-woman shows. Her fourth book, Rwandan Women Rising, will be published this spring. (Her favorite is Half-Life of a Zealot, to return to a religious theme.)

Now she is singing solo, all the more appreciating that she was able to summit Kilimanjaro (and dances her heart out) with two new knees. Her world includes three born-free children and a menagerie of cat, parrot, horses, bison, and a gaggle of grandchildren.

She considers Jo Frances Meyer and Chris Wilkins on the side of the angels.