SUNDAY, APRIL 14, 2019 4:00PM
Pre-concert conversation 3:00pm
Howard Performing Arts Center, Berrien Springs
Jonathan Beyer and the Southwest Michigan Symphony Chorus serve as musical storytellers for William Walton’s dramatic cantata which conveys the account of Babylon’s fall as depicted in the Old Testament.
The concert will also feature the side-by-side performance of Saint-Saëns’ Bacchanale from Samson and Delilah with the Lake Michigan Youth Orchestra and the original composition Michigan Mosaic by Alan Palider.
Belshazzar’s Feast William Walton (1902 – 1983)
English composer William Walton first came to the attention of the musical world in his early twenties with Façade, a strikingly original musical “entertainment” for small ensemble and narrator. Walton’s wryly comic music accompanied poems byEdith Sitwell, one of three literary siblings that had nurtured and supported the composer since his Oxford undergraduate days.
When this initial success led to a commission from the BBC for a work requiring similarly modest forces, Edith’s brother Osbert proposed a cantata based on the story of Babylonian king Belshazzar, with a libretto drawn from Isaiah, Psalm 137 and the Book of Revelations.
In the process of composition from 1929 – 1931, the project grew exponentially in scope, becoming not at all the short, lightly scored piece the BBC had commissioned, but instead a full-scale oratorio/cantata, requiring vast vocal and orchestral resources. The inexperienced composer struggled to bring the work to completion, commenting later that: “I got landed on the word ‘gold.’ I was there from May to December, perched, unable to move right or left or up or down!”
Ultimately, the BBC took a pass on the project because of cost. Fortunately, the première was taken up by the Leeds Festival, which had greater capacity to mount large choral events. Though the choirs struggled with the work’s rhythmic and harmonic complexity, (and also objected to the inclusion of the word “concubine”), the cantata was very well-received by audiences and critics alike. The church authorities took a different view, initially banning the work from performance in its cathedrals, and only relenting when success elsewhere made continued resistance, to this entirely biblically-derived cantata, absurd.
Belshazzar’s Feast is structured as a single entity, divided into three large sections, each linked by recitative for solo baritone. In section one, the prophet Elijah foretells the loss of Jerusalem and the enslavement of the Jews. Section two describes a decadent feast, the worship of idols, and the desecration of vessels sacred to the Jews, whilst the finale is a hymn of praise for the fall of Babylon. Leaving only a lone baritone voice between these richly scored passages allowed Walton hauntingly effective expressive possibilities, which he used to particularly striking effect between sections two and three, depicting the writing on the wall and the inexorable progression to Belshazzar’s death.
“Bacchanale” from Samson et Dalila Camille Saint-Saëns, (1835 – 1921)
This enormously popular segment from Saint-Saëns’s 1877 opera occurs during the final scene. The Philistines prepare a sacrifice to commemorate their victory over the rebellious Israelites, with the priests at first singing, and then commencing to dance themselves into a wild frenzy.
Drawing from memories of music heard during his extensive travels in North Africa and the Middle East, Saint-Saëns wove the dance from a series of exotic-sounding melodies, and energetic dance rhythms. The music slowly builds from a cadenza for oboe alone, through to an appropriately tumultuous coda.