SOUTH PORTLAND — The winners of the 2012 Longfellow International Composers Competition not only receive prizes, but also get to hear their works played by eminent soloists, a first rate orchestra and a fine chorus, conducted by Longfellow Festival artistic director Charles Kaufmann. 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. The most original and entertaining was the last performed: “Excelsior” by Ross C. Bernhardt of Texas. Bernhardt does in music what James Thurber accomplished in cartoons – a whimsical and lighthearted spoof of Longfellow’s admonition to strive ever “onward and upward.”

“Excelsior” begins with the a cappella choir taking up a doo-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 not climbing but going downhill?

Another virtuoso feat was M. Susan Brown’s “Christmas Bells” for unaccompanied chorus. The composer overcame memories of the familiar carol tune (“I heard the bells on Christmas Day”) with music that conveys Longfellow’s attitude toward the Civil War.

The center section makes imaginative use of the Southern version of shaped-note harmony.

Two highly atmospheric compositions, “Snow” for chorus by George Chave and “Woods in Winter” by Ray Downey, were effective if not ground-breaking. The use of a woodwind quartet to accompany soprano Vera Savage in the latter work provided the opportunity for smooth and rapid changes in mood and texture.

The same combination was employed, with piano, in “Daylight and Moonlight,” by Christopher M. Wicks.

Savage’s powerful voice and precise intonation were further revealed in “Three Songs” by Kevin Hartnett. Each attempts to convey the impression given by the totality of the poem. The most successful was the resigned desolation of “The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls.”

A soaring “My Cathedral” by Niccolo D. Athens made one wonder why the clarinet is not used more often to accompany choral works. Its voice, under the command of Karen Beacham, easily distinguished itself through the most fortissimo passages of the Longfellow Chorus.

In addition to conducting and playing bassoon in the woodwind quartet, Kaufmann contributed five highly enjoyable settings of passages from Longfellow’s “Saga of the Skeleton in Armor,” one of which uses a scale he specifically invented for the poem. His tongue-in-cheek approach to the poem was an appropriate lead-in to “Excelsior.”

Noted violinist Arve Tellefsen provided notes of humor and virtuosity in interludes by Longfellow’s friend, the Norwegian violinist Ole Bull, the final one being “Ole Bull’s Polka” (1926), a posthumous collaboration among Bull, Paganini and composer Christian Olsen.

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


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