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NMSO concert review: Walton's ``Belshazzar's Feast,'' May 22, 1998

This paragraph appeared in the Albuquerque Tribune of January 1, 1999, in Cathy Robbins' retrospective of the classical music year:

The NMSO brought us several memorable moments. In May, the NMSO closed its 1997-98 season with Walton's daunting ``Belshazzar's Feast.'' The orchestra and chorus with soloist Jubilant Sykes gave us a dazzling performance of this biblical but blazing, jazzy work.

This review appeared in the Albuquerque Journal of May 25, 1998.

Fine parts don't make perfect whole

by Joanne Sheehy Hoover

The New Mexico Symphony Orchestra rounded off its classical series Friday night with an uncharacteristically disjointed program. Its schizophrenic nature left one feeling one off balance and musically unsatisfied despite some highly arresting parts.

The primary focus lay on Sir William Walton's rousing choral epic, ``Belshazzar's Feast.''

Completed in 1931 by a young Walton, it took the public and critics by storm. Before its appearance, Walton had been known primarily for his Viola Concerto and a witty chamber work called ``Facade.'' His oratorio was hailed as the greatest English choral work since Elgar's ``The Dream of Gerontius'' of 1900. Though solidly in the British choral tradition, Walton's use of clashing harmonies and a vividly dramatic approach kept ``Belshazzar'' out of cathedrals until the 1950s.

Unlike, for example, last month's Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which can be a program by itself, ``Belshazzar's Feast'' though big emotionally lasts only a little more than thirty minutes. So what to do for the first half? Conductor David Lockington's offerings seemed a piecemeal solution.

Along with lots of vivid brass parts, ``Belshazzar'' requires a large battery of percussion.

Having this arsenal around no doubt accounted for the evening's starter, ``Ritmica V for Percussion,'' written in 1930 by the Cuban composer Amadeo Roldan. Brief, not given a particularly dynamic reading, it made a weak opener. It segued into a delightful, jazzy exchange, also based on Cuban rhythms, between clarinetist Lori Lovato and bass Mark Tatum. That piece then gave way to ``Ocho por Radio'' (Eight Musicians Broadcasting), a 1933 piece from the Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas. Though bassoonist Daniel Shelly and trumpeter Douglas Carlsen produced some liquid lines, the work came off as just another filler.

``Belshazzar'' also requires a strong male singer, which accounted for the presence of the radiant African American baritone Jubilant Sykes. The program suddenly made a right-angle turn and out came Sykes to sing a couple of spirituals in breathy falsetto into a mike. Before the protests start, let me say that Sykes is an extraordinary performer and musician. Hearing him sing made me think of what a poet once said about Jenny Lind, the 19th-century soprano known as the Swedish Nightingale. He wrote that he didn't hear her sound, he just heard her soul.

Now Sykes has plenty of sound. He gave out deep, rolling tones that proved electrifying, particularly in an unaccompanied song titled ``Witness'' and in his ``Belshazzar'' solos. He is also a singer who gives witness through his voice, and the spiritual forms a key ingredient in his music-making. A better context for his appearance would have avoided the emotional zigzags that made the first half feel like a musical roller coaster.

The second half opened with a well-deserved toast to the NMSO Chorus' 25th anniversary.

Skillfully prepared by their director Roger Melone, the chorus gave one of its most fluid and subtly shaped performances. Plunging with gusto into Walton's mighty passages resplendently reinforced by the brass, the chorus also found sensitively varied emotional layers, especially in their unaccompanied parts. Sykes' rich baritone and ringing conviction gave special weight to his solos. Reflecting their growing discipline and precision, the orchestra responded strongly to Lockington's forceful directions.

At 8 p.m. Wednesday, the NMSO will open a series of three zoo concerts with ``An evening of Romance.'' On Saturday at the zoo it will perform ``Blockbuster Classics'' and on Sunday an all-American program.

Next: NMSO concert review: Beethoven's Ninth, Apr. 11, 1998
See also: New Mexico Symphony Orchestra Chorus: schedule and reviews, 1995–2011
Previous: NMSO concert review: Gorecki's Third/Poulenc ``Gloria'', Oct. 16, 1998
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John W. Shipman,
Last updated: 1999/10/18 20:50:17