Sir Andrew Davis begins our musical exploration of the 1930s with three exceptional works. Hindemith’s Concert Music for Brass and Strings is a stunning showpiece for orchestra without the woodwinds. The amazing sonorities of these two sections playing against and with each other are without comparison anywhere in the orchestral repertoire. Our own Jonathan Crow is the featured soloist in Berg’s beautiful Violin Concerto—a rich, lushly Romantic work tinged with elegiac sensibilities. Berg’s use of the contemporary language his teacher Schoenberg created is highly personal, a singular voice amidst the experimentation and angularity of this musically tempestuous decade. Alexander Dobson, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, and the Huddersfield Choral Society join the Orchestra for Walton’s exhilarating oratorio Belshazzar’s Feast. This exciting work might be his masterpiece. It is dramatic, lyrical, highly original, and completely compelling.
Sir William Walton’s spectacular biblical oratorio—tracing the liberation of the Hebrew slaves from captivity in Babylon and powered by a 200-voice mass choir—is the climax of a program conducted by TSO Conductor Laureate Sir Andrew Davis that includes the eloquent violin concerto that Alban Berg composed in tribute to a young woman who had died at eighteen.
Babylon was a great city,
Her merchandise was of gold and silver,
Of precious stones, of pearls, of fine linen,
Of purple, silk, and scarlet,
All manner vessels of ivory,
All manner vessels of most precious wood,
Of brass, iron, and marble,
Cinnamon, odours, and ointments,
Of frankincense, wine, and oil,
Fine flour, wheat, and beasts,
Sheep, horses, chariots, slaves,
And the souls of men.
Walton came to attention through impudent, jazz-inflected scores such as the spoken-and played “entertainment” Façade (1922), and cemented his reputation as a bright light of music with the warm, haunting Viola Concerto (1929). He made further inroads into conservative domains (but not through conservative means) by creating an example of that long-time British favourite, the choral work with orchestra.
Belshazzar’s Feast was commissioned by the BBC, to be premièred at the 1931 Leeds Triennial Festival. Author Osbert Sitwell came up with the Old Testament story of the “handwriting on the wall” as the subject. Using the King James edition of the Bible, he drew upon the books of Daniel, Isaiah, Revelation, and the Psalms. The première audience initially registered shock at the fierceness expressed by both text and music, but by the end of the performance, the score’s sheer visceral impact swept them to their feet.
After the stern opening proclamation, the baritone soloist and chorus lament the oppressed state of the Hebrew slaves in Babylon. The baritone sings an unaccompanied recitative enumerating Babylon’s vast riches and its profound evils. The vibrant depiction of the feast proper makes prominent use of the jagged rhythmic syncopations of early jazz. The chorus, taking the viewpoint of the Hebrews, describes how Belshazzar, king of Babylon, commits blasphemy by having his slaves bring forth the golden drinking vessels that his father, Nebuchadnezzar, had stolen from the sacred Hebrew temples in Jerusalem, at the same time as he had enslaved the population. Belshazzar and his courtiers imbibe from them, sealing their doom in the eyes of God. Belshazzar (baritone soloist) calls for praises to be sung to his people’s gods. The chorus shifts to the role of Babylonians, singing ecstatic odes to their deities.
At the height of the festivities, the God of the Hebrews intervenes. He sends forth a phantom hand to inscribe the fate of Belshazzar and his people on the wall of the palace. The scene is climaxed by the chorus’s electrifying shout of “Slain!” as Belshazzar and his kingdom are cast down. The Hebrews celebrate their freedom in a jubilant hymn of praise.
‘Belshazzar’s Feast’ as performed by The Toronto Symphony Orchestra is not for the faint of heart. Its rich diversity, thunderous punctuated exclamation points and heightened moments of deep meditation encircle the piece. As we inhaled its grand stature – it was hard to sit still throughout the performance. The mood deliberately made us fidget and yet encouraged us to lean into the discomfort.
TSO Conductor Laureate Sir Andrew Davis challenged the violin concerto beautifully and exhaustingly conducted the score with tireless intent, as a vulnerable audience member there were notes that I felt required a dab sweat from my brow.
The orchestra was mesmerizing and were working as a cohesive whole it is was hard not to marvel at the complexity of ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’ as sung by the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and Huddersfield Choral Society but to feel it’s foreboding and almost guttural tones. Forget a rock concert in an arena – if you are looking for a heart smacking experience, ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’ as performed by The Toronto Symphony Orchestra needs to be your new religion.
The fine stitching in of the orchestra and the choirs was quite a feat to encounter. Sir Andrew Davis is a genius and a poet. His delicateness with bringing the piece to life with such respect and at the same time conjuring a mood, space, time and a myriad of emotions – one cannot help but be moved. Your dollars are well spent when bearing witness to Davis’ masterpiece. You will also be leaving a slightly more enlightened person than when you arrived.
Take time out of your work, school and life schedule to immerse yourself in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. From a place of meditation and healing – experiencing ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’ is not only transformative but could be helpful in creating a space in your mind and body for some deep healing on the orchestra’s time.