The Toledo Museum of Art Peristyle shook last night when conductor Stefan Sanderling led vocal soloist Gary Relyea, Goshen College choirs, and the Toledo Symphony in William Walton's 1931 cantata "Belshazzar's Feast." Also on the program was Beethoven's Symphony No. 8 in F Major.
The Walton is a jagged, muscular, and visceral work that describes the decadence of Babylon and the murder of its king, Belshazzar.
The music is primal, yet extremely stylized. Sometimes it sounds fiercely nationalistic, other times textures remind one of a score to some fantastic movie whose conception was too grand to ever be squeezed onto a screen. Orchestrations are so over-the-top rich that they almost smell of the sensuousness and violence that was ancient Babylon.
The choir, over 100 strong and wonderfully prepared by Goshen College professor Debra Brubaker, percolated with vitality. Diction was immaculate, pitch focused. At times the singers, though so young and positive as individuals, seemed to sway with the dark inevitability of brooding masses.
Holding his own as an equal against both choir and orchestra was bass-baritone Relyea, who projected an imposing authority in both song and physicality. He mined deep and dark emotions to give venom to the notion of Babylon selling "the souls of men"; his announcement of Belshazzar's murder sounded itself like the death rattle.
The program opened with an equally revealing performance of the Beethoven symphony. Sanderling asked the musicians to perform with a level of exuberance one might expect from a rock band. They responded heartily. Tempos were bright, melodies invariably confident. More fun still, textures rarely heard - rumbling bass notes and inner melodies from the woodwinds - seemed as natural as the sunrise.
Even so, the sound was not as clear as it might have been. This was because the choir setup for the Walton forced the orchestra's wind sections to move onto the floor instead of using risers, as normal. Brass sounds were sometimes muddy.
The program will be repeated at 8 tonight. Tickets range from $18 to $45 and are available at the door.
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