Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 retelling of the legend of Iroquois leader Hiawatha, the most famous of all unread poems, lives today not in America’s conscience but in a two-hour setting for soloists, chorus, and orchestra by British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (not to be confused with the Ancient Mariner’s Samuel Taylor Coleridge). The son of a black doctor who, harassed by townspeople in the London suburb where he tried to practice, abandoned his family and fled to Africa, Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) fought his own uphill battle for recognition, achieving it in 1900, when Britain — whose passion for grandiose choral productions extends back to the famous 1,000-plus-voice ”Messiahs” of the late 18th century — took ”Hiawatha” to its heart. Despite its text, Hiawatha is devoid of anything mistakable for Native American musical influence. Instead, ”Hiawatha” is aglow with flamboyant Victorianisms, and remains irresistible, incomparably pretty, sometimes even stirring. British conductor Kenneth Alwyn and his massed performing forces give the work a larger-than-life treatment; it deserves nothing less. A

  • Music