The winners of the 2012 Longfellow International Composers Competition not only receive a prize, but also get to hear their works performed by eminent soloists, a first-rate orchestra and a fine chorus, conducted by Longfellow Festival artistic director Charles Kaufman. Many of the composers were in the audience Sunday afternoon at the First Congregational Church of South Portland.

All of the winning works were of high quality, but the most original and entertaining was the last performed: “Excelsior” by Ross C. Bernhardt.  Texas composer Bernhardt does in music what James Thurber accomplished in a cartoon – a whimsical and lighthearted spoof of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s admonition to strive ever “onward and upward.”

“Excelsior” begins with the a cappella choir taking up a do-wop beat in the bass to accompany the poem. It then proceeds through quotations of various triumphant passages in western music in (I think) reverse order, winding up with Gregorian chant. Perhaps the young man with the “banner of strange device” is actually going downhill?

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

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A full review will appear in The Portland Press Herald.