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Walton Rises to the Occasion

Ionarts was able to lure Robert R. Reilly, whom you know because you bought and enjoyed Surprised by Beauty, to the Kennedy Center where he graciously reviewed the Washington Chorus's Easter Concert.

Other Reviews:

Tim Page, Washington Chorus Provides Quite a 'Feast' (Washington Post, April 11)
The Palm Sunday afternoon concert by the Washington Chorus and Orchestra, supplemented by the Shenandoah Conservatory Choir, under music director Robert Shafer, was billed as a sonic spectacular. “Experience the electrifying sound of the 250 voices and full symphony orchestra . . . (emphasis in original),” urged the advertisement in the Washington Post arts section. This billing failed to fill the concert hall at the Kennedy Center, which seemed less than two-thirds full at the 3:00 PM start.

available at Amazon
Walton, Bernstein, Belshazzar's Feast , Chichester Psalms, Missa Brevis, Shaw / Atlanta Ch&O
That was unfortunate because, truth-in-advertising, it was a spectacular concert in every sense, sonically and artistically. The program included Maurice Duruflé’s brief Ubi Caritas, Francis Poulenc’s Gloria, and William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast.

The start of the Gloria was more ceremonial than alarming. The opening orchestral jolts were not delivered with the expected energy. However, the first entry of the full chorus projected so much power that I waselectrified.” In the Laudamus Te, Shafer demonstrated that he could do anything with this huge body of voices. The movement was effervescently performed, with a marvelous lightness of touch. The singing was so gorgeous that the audience impetuously began to applaud at the movement’s end.

Throughout, the chorus exhibited a perfect combination of spirit and beauty. Shafer never indulged himself by showing off how beautiful his superb singers could be. Beauty was never left hanging out there by itself. It was always infused by spirit, as was shown in the glorious outburst at the beginning of the Qui Sedes Ad Dextram Patris, making the piece particularly moving.

The only misstep in the Poulenc, in fact in the whole afternoon, was soprano Maria Knapik’s performance. A bigger voice needs to be put in front of a chorus this size. She seems to have a rich lower range, but the top was constricted. She finally cut loose in the last Amen, but most of her performance was woefully underpowered, if not wobbly.

W. WaltonWilliam Walton has been having a good year in Washington. Earlier this season, Slatkin and the NSO gave a fine performance of Walton’s galvanizing First Symphony. Sunday, Shafer and his forces gave an even finer performance of Belshazzar’s Feast. I love Walton’s music, though I have never been particularly entranced by this oratorio. Now I know why. I never heard it before. At least, no recording has conveyed its full brilliance, as revealed by Shafer and his forces, with incomparably more detail and nuance than recordings to date can capture.

Finally, I understand why some say this is the greatest English choral piece since Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. Of course, Walton drew upon Elgar, and Holst, and added his own signature high voltage to the brew. The rest of the Washington Post ad said this is “one of the most dazzling choral works ever written (emphasis in original).” Shafer made the case for this contention with great alertness, in a finely articulated performance, loaded with expressivity and extraordinary power. He was aided by baritone Ryan Kinsella, whose dramatic delivery and superb articulation projected mightily. As for the chorus, an elderly women near me said, “they sang their socks off.” The audience agreed and, as one, rose to its feet for a standing ovation. I heard myself shouting, “bravo.”


Anonymous said...

So right to give high marks to this performance, especially the combined chorus which for its size showed ample flexibility and nuance. Ms. Knapil though sounded warbly not wobbly, and just right for the Poulenc.

'Belshazzar' indeed works better live, tho the Ken Cen acoustics aren't up to it either. I don't hear a trace of Elgar in it, indeed Walton was cheekily trying to spice up and deviate from the 'English choral tradition' with his spiky rhythms and jazzy syncopation. An interesting alternate on disc (many thanks, Ionarts, for posting album graphics which grab attention as links do not) is Previn's composer-supervised version, available as EMI Import CDM 64723 in fine sound at a good price with all-Walton couplings.

However it's too bad Mr. Reilly missed the most entertaining part--Lady Walton's pre-concert lecture--where she delivered her lines even better than the Chorus. The Wash Chorus says she was available most of the week in DC but the only 'press' I saw on it was..of all things..a promo in the Post's Home section (re the Walton home & garden). Ionarts readers may wish to know, though that thanks to a savvy questioner it was revealed that the Washington National Opera has been approached to put on Walton's "Troilus and Cressida". Walton enthusiasts may want to chime in on that.

George Pieler

Garth Trinkl said...

Thank you Mssrs Reilly and Pieler.... I think that Walton's "Troilus and Cressida" would have been an exciting choice for the Washington National Opera to have produced next Spring (2007) as part of the regional "Shakespeare in Washington Festival", instead of the reprise (also done recently at the Kennedy Center by the Mariinsky/Kirov) of Verdi's MacBeth.

I recall seeing a superb stage production of the Shakespeare "T & C" at the Barbican, years back, in which the action was set in Sevastopol, Crimea, between the warring Russian and British, French, Italian, and Turkish troops. I'll try to put my hand on who the producer (director) was.

Anonymous said...

Good to hear more enthusiasm for Troilus as a WNO vehicle. Alas Walton's librettist drew on Chaucer not Shakespeare so it can't be shoehorned into the 'Shakespeare festival' concept. This however raise a more interesting possibility: a Trojan Trio of repertoire (no jokes please) of Troilus, Berlioz' Les Troyens (long, long overdue for local presentation) and Tippett's King Priam. WNO has some great voices on tap to eat up the leads in each one.


Garth Trinkl said...

Thanks for the correction... I'll blame the current local visit by the Royal Shakespeare Company -- performing Chaucer -- for confusing me.

While I think that King Priam is a powerful modern opera, I imagine that we'll see a Wolf Trap Opera production (when that opera center gets revived management) before we see a WNO Kennedy Center production. Of your three proposals, the WNO --under its current management --would probably go first for Francesa Zambello's production of the Berlioz, in my view.


Ginny said...

Thank you for blogging the review - a friend sings in the Washington Chorus and I regret that I've never gotten a chance to hear them sing "live."