‘Hiawatha’ at the Liverpool Philharmonic, 19 November 2011 (Culture Pod Visit)

Richard Gordon-Smith writes:

Philharmonic Hall, LiverpoolEvent 1 of the Curious Minds ‘Culture Pod’* A visit led, and here reported, by composer Richard Gordon-Smith, to hear the RLPO perform Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast.

The first Pod’s outing on our odyssey through the culture of creativity began at a restaurant, followed by a concert at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, where the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra under the baton of David Hill did justice to three late 19th Century works.  The concert began with Elgar’s inoffensive Wand of Youth Suite, in which he expands, at length, on music from his earliest writings.  The main piece on the programme was the mellifluous Faure Requiem which occupied the second half of the show.  The choral singing and orchestral playing were here exquisitely nuanced to bring out the full beauty of this masterpiece.  My main aim however in bringing the Pod to the concert was to introduce them to Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s cantata Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast.

How easy it is to confuse in memory the quality of something witnessed in childhood with our own ability to comprehend it at the time!

Having first heard small sections of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s famous setting of Longfellow‘s poem on the radio, on 78 records or as brief snatches of song sung by my parents, for many years I mentally equated the work with Gilbert and Sullivan operetta or Cole Porter musicals – i.e. fun at the time, but not of serious musical significance.  It was some time in the early 1990s however, that I came across a complete recording of all three works of the Hiawatha trilogy (Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, The Death of Minnehaha and The Departure of Hiawatha) and at that point I realised why SC-T’s contemporaries thought so highly of him.  From 2001 onwards I was also lucky enough to conduct some of his works in the HOTFOOT Concerts at the Philharmonic given by the Hope Street Association**, when my respect for this modest genius rose immeasurably.

On the 19th November 2011 at the Liverpool Philharmonic we were captivated by the generous flood of melody sweeping over us, the driving force of the rhythms and the strikingly contemporary feel of Hiawatha.  Composers have different ways of unifying their compositions; a modern-day minimal composer may construct their work on one monolithic principal over endlessly repeated but gradually morphing patterns, whereas Beethoven built the Fifth Symphony from a single germ motif and in Bolero Ravel just repeated the same theme louder and louder by continually developing the orchestration.  Coleridge-Taylor creates unity by taking full advantage of Longfellow’s obsessive trochaic metre, setting it as a sustained paean of joy, hardly taking breath and carrying the listener along for half an hour of wild, sunny melody.

This young composer’s work must have seemed very refreshing and challenging  to his first audiences, though in genealogy it stems directly from the music of the British choral tradition and the German Romantics.  Of course the disruption to be caused by the serialism of the Second Viennese School under Schoenberg, Berg and Webern would soon erupt as they sought for ever more radical ways of constructing music, but until that time a ‘new voice’ was hailed in the form of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.  In this Centenary Year – 100 years from his sadly early death at the age of 37 – I am glad that on our first Culture Pod experience we were able to hear this excellent contribution to the celebrations in honour of the man who can rightly claim to be Britain’s first major black classical composer.


*Culture Pod is a group of creative advisors and practitioners who meet on a regular basis to sample, discuss and report on a variety of artistic/cultural experiences.  Each Pod Member in turn ‘curates’ (devises and leads) a cultural event which might take the form, as in this case, of a concert, or a play, a film, a dance, etc. related to their own field of practice.  The idea of Culture Pod grew out of a ‘think tank’ within the creative social enterprise company Curious Minds, who presently support our Pod.
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**Richard Gordon-Smith and his RLPO colleague violinist Martin Anthony (Tony) Burrage (who was on stage for this Hiawatha concert) have over the past decade and more explored many of the works of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, performing them annually for a dozen years until 2009 at the HOTFOOT on Hope Street community concerts devised and promoted by HOPES: The Hope Street Association.
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Details of Richard’s music and teaching can be found on his website: www.richardgordon-smith.co.uk

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