The only thing lacking at the Longfellow 203rd Birthday Choral Concert on Sunday at the First Parish Church was a large-enough audience. Sometimes we don’t appreciate what’s right under our noses.

The Longfellow Chorus, directed by Charles Kaufmann, an excellent orchestra (mostly members of the Portland Symphony), and outstanding soloists soprano Angela M. Brown, baritone Robert Honeysucker, tenor Mark Sprinkle and pianist and organist Geoffrey Wieting turned what could have been a local celebration into a major musical event.

The star of the program, in addition to our own Henry Wads-worth, was the composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, best known for setting Longfellow’s “Hiawatha” to music for British and American choruses.

Coleridge-Taylor’s “The Death of Minnehaha” (Opus 30, No. 2), written in 1899, was the centerpiece of Sunday’s program. It made one realize why American audiences called the black composer “the African Mahler.”

The work is beautifully composed and orchestrated, and deeply emotional, with more than enough variety to propel long stretches of trochaic tetrameter without ever being repetitious.

In fact, the only time the music closely mimics the poetic meter is at the conclusion, when the consonance becomes extremely effective.

Orchestra, soloists and chorus united to provide what can only be termed a definitive performance of a little-known masterpiece.

Longfellow, too, never ceases to surprise.

Coleridge-Taylor also set to music his poem “The Quadroon Girl” (Opus 54, No. 4), which depicts a plantation owner selling his own mixed-race daughter into sexual slavery. The work was orchestrated by Kaufmann from the 1906 piano-vocal score and convincingly sung by Honeysucker.

An amount of suspense was added to the concert by the after-concert announcement of the Cantata Finalist in the 2009-2010 Longfellow Chorus International Composers Competition.

The orchestra and chorus performed sections of “A Day of Sunshine” by Keane H. Southard and “Suspira” by Marcus K. Maroney.

Both were highly professional and well-orchestrated compositions, the first in a breezy, sometimes jazzy style that evoked Longfellow’s love of nature and wide-open spaces, and the second an intimate rendering of the poet’s more ghostly side. Since it was too hard to choose between the two, prizes went to both composers.

Other prize winners whose Longfellow settings were performed at the concert were: Elaine Hagenberg, 2009-2010 Award of Distinction in Choral Composition for “A Day of Sunshine”; Martin Westlake, Prize in Choral Composition for “The Haunted Chamber”; Christopher Wicks, Chorus Director’s Prize in Solo Song Competition for “Snow-Flakes”; Byron Page, Award of Distinction in Solo Song Composition for “The Little Moon”; and David Walther,  Chorus Director’s Prize in Choral Composition for “Alone Gd. (sic) Sufficeth.”

 

Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at: [email protected]