The first program of the Longfellow 204th Birthday Choral Festival got off to a rousing start Saturday at the First Parish Church with a trio of cantatas based on Longfellow poems — one by Franz Liszt and two by the cantata finalists in the Longfellow Chorus International Composer’s competition.
The chorus was supported by a fine orchestra, conducted by artistic director Charles Kaufman, and soloists Bradford Gleim, baritone, Tania Mandzy, mezzo-soprano, and Tyler Putnam, bass-baritone.
The Liszt work, “The Bells of Strasbourg Cathedral” (1874), was surprisingly good. In fact, the five-note opening motif of the “Excelsior” prelude was borrowed by Wagner for a scene in “Parsifal.” The second movement, “The Bells,” was more unrestrained, with one melody that sounded suspiciously like “La Marseillaise,” and a finale in which an arabesque of high choral work shimmers over a deep organ point.
The premiere performance of “By the Seaside,” by Massachusetts composer Jonathan Blumhofer, was equally well played and sung. The four movements are “The Secret of the Sea,” “Seaweed,” “The Evening Star” and “The Lighthouse,” all of which excelled in sea imagery without sounding like Debussy’s “La Mer.”
All of the movements are in a style I call Romantic-modern, basically tonal and melodic, but with surprises, both harmonic and instrumental. “Seaweed,” for example begins as a syncopated waltz and ends with an abrupt tuba snort. The first movement contained a lovely soprano solo with harp accompaniment and effective flute and piccolo descants over the chorus.
“The Lighthouse” was highly atmospheric, with a strong combination of voice, orchestra, organ and chorus, but I couldn’t decipher a kind of perpetuum mobile as a depiction of a steadfast beacon, until I began to think of it as the ripple of waves against passing hulls.
In this work and the one that followed, I was impressed by the talents of Mandzy and Putnam. Both have powerful and well-tuned vocal instruments, but even more important to poetic settings was their clarity. One could understand every word, which is seldom the case in any kind of vocals.
“Song of the Silent Land,” by British composer Piers Maxim, is based on two Longfellow translations from the German, “The Dead” and L’Envoi.” Its orchestral writing seemed more polished than that of “By the Seaside,” and its solo voice settings are quite operatic. What was most striking, however, was the instrumental use of speech rhythms such as “Into the silent land.”
After a performance of Sullivan’s “The Golden Legend” Saturday night, the festival concluded Sunday with songs and choruses from the competition. If they were as well played and sung as Saturday afternoon’s concert, the festival must have been an unqualified success.
In case anyone is wondering, both cantatas won first place, a judgment in which I happily concur.
Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at: