In his time, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow enjoyed an international popularity baffling to modern readers. He was the first non-British poet memorialized in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner. After a private audience, Queen Victoria described the staff at the palace peeking out from doorways and behind columns to catch a glimpse of the retreating author. Artists regularly turned to his work for inspiration. The Song of Hiawatha (1855) immediately appealed to sculptors, painters and composers. In America, the poem’s popularity spawned song settings, cantatas, symphonies and a sprawling, 14-movement hybrid of spoken word, choral and solo singing, and orchestral interludes. Delius and Dvořák, to name only two of the most familiar European composers, were drawn to the epic, but none more so than Samuel Coleridge-Taylor who became a veritable Hiawatha factory, composing three cantatas and instrumental music inspired by Longfellow’s poem. His final Hiawatha piece, a ballet, was found un-orchestrated – and likely unfinished – at his death in 1912. Seven years later, some of the music was published as a suite, orchestrated by conductor and composer, Percy Fletcher.

Thomas Wilkins conducts the Boston Symphony
© Winslow Townson

The influence of Brahms and Dvořák is clear, especially the latter. Themes from the three cantatas, modified and elaborated, are woven into the fabric of the five movements, beginning with high romantic scene painting, an affirmative evocation of spring replete with woodwind bird calls and rippling harp glissandos. The movements are mainly celebratory, festive and colorful with the final two taking on more somber hues and cadences. The hymnodic Reunion concludes the suite on an elegiac note. The Boston Symphony’s Youth and Family Concerts conductor, Thomas Wilkins, created a rhythmic profile for each movement so clear they danced in your head. Stagings of the suite were renowned for their scenery and effects, none were necessary here to see what the colors of the music depicted.

In contrast, Duke Ellington’s suite from his 1970s ballet The River is a phantasmagoria of jazz, blues, film score and big band sounds. The rhythmic pulse is varied and colorful. It also begins with an ambiguous evocation of Spring (is it the season, the source of the river, both?), announced not by birds and rippling currents but by a circumspect horn solo. Chimes, flute and harp are prominent in the texture of the movement but far from their traditional, high romantic roles in nature music. Wilkins deftly guided the river’s flow as it meandered into the blues, negotiated the swinging, giggling rapids with piano, brass and cymbals prominent, arrived at the repose of Lake and braved the percussive Vortex before reaching its outlet in the broad and majestic expanse of the sea.

Victor Wooten and the Boston Symphony
© Winslow Townson

The ballet suites bookended Victor Wooten’s rhythmically intricate and virtuosic concerto for electric bass guitar, La Lección Tres, the third and longest version of a short piece from 2008. Hoots and loud applause greeted Wooten’s entrance eliciting mock offense from Wilkins, who then brushed off the audience’s attempt to compensate. The exchange immediately lightened the mood for the performance to come and threaded through intermission to the second half when Wilkins returned to the podium to unsolicited hoots and enthusiastic applause of his own and deadpanned gratitude for the audience’s “pity”. 

Victor Wooten and the Boston Symphony
© Winslow Townson

Wooten used two instruments, one which he played like a traditional guitar, the other which he bowed. The first two movements began in a fashion familiar from Mahler’s early symphonies – scales and fragments of melodic and rhythmic figures from Wooten picked up by the orchestra, repeated and elaborated until they coalesce, in the first case, into a sultry, bluesy episode and the second a waltz whose rhythms Wooten’s bass often played against. The second and third flowed into each other, bridged by a revolt of the double basses who took up an insistent theme solo much to the consternation of Wooten and Wilkins, who scratched their heads, consulted the score and remained momentarily flummoxed. Wooten picked up his bowed instrument and subdued the double basses with a cadenza-like outburst of playful call and response but not before the first violin and cello briefly attempted to get into the act. A march cadence spiced with a salsa of castanets and maracas then propelled the movement to a rousing conclusion. Inventive, engaging, and above all fun, this performance of La Lección Tres invites repeat performances. 

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