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NMSO concert review: Walton, “Belshazzar's Feast”

The article below appeared in the Albuquerque Journal of November 18, 2007.

Pine, Feast make for memorably NMSO night

by D.S. Crafts

To everyone's delight violinist Rachel Barton Pine is becoming a regular visitor to New Mexico. Having performed with the Santa Fe Symphony earlier this season, she arrived on the stage of Popejoy Hall on Friday night as soloist with the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra in the Violin Concerto No. 3 of Saint-Saëns.

The golden gown in which she appeared seemed a visual analogue of the golden sound which emanated from her instrument (a 1742 del Gesu). If Rembrandt's brilliant golds could “sound,”, they would have the timbre of Pine's playing. The Saint-Saëns concerto puts the violin center stage throughout and Pine responded in a marvel of espressivo and beauty of line. Beginning with the opening phrase in meaty low tones, she sang with lilting voice through the soaring lines of the Andantino, then nimbly into the free spirit of the Finale. Maestro Figueroa, himself an outstanding violinist, knows exactly what support to give the soloist, and provided a colorful cushion with plenty of attention to woodwind details, never once overpowering the violin.

Announcing her encore in a loud and clear voice (thank you!), she commemorated the NMSO's 75th anniversary with a Theme and Variations on a popular song—Happy Birthday. She proceeded to make even that banal tune sound like real music and followed with a series of variations which rolled the Paganini Caprices into one almost unbelievable feat of virtuosity. Great fun for us; an astounding display of technique for her.

Returning from its triumph in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony only weeks ago, Roger Melone's marvelous NMSO Chorus filled the back of the stage for the oratorio Belshazzar's Feast by English composer William Walton. There could hardly be a more fitting showcase for the Chorus than this work of great drama and passion. The often complex harmonies and thrillingly unanticipated rhythms allowed the ensemble to demonstrate richly hued pianissimos, crisp, clean staccatos and heart-stopping fortissimos. For the performer the piece is teeming with treacherous pitfalls, but when as here everything comes together, the effect is gloriously spectacular. The stentorian pronouncements of baritone Steven Condy narrated the action, and supertitles provided the audience with the text.

After a somber opening section depicting the bitter enslavement of the Jews and some rich a cappella singing from the male voices, the music exploded into a riot of volume and color in the setting of the feast, a gourmet banquet of musical textures and flavors. The huge orchestra which includes an extended battery of percussion and two extra brass sections placed in the wings above was all held together with decisive precision by Maestro Figueroa in a presentation almost cinematic in its execution. The final jubilation ended with a fury of sumptuous excitement.

If you miss this concert, you really miss out on something quite special. The concert repeats today at the Albuquerque Journal Theatre at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, at 2 p.m.

Next: NMSO concert review: Beethoven, Symphony No. 9
See also: New Mexico Symphony Orchestra Chorus: schedule and reviews, 1995–2011
Previous: NMSO concert review: Mendelssohn, “Elijah”
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John W. Shipman,
Last updated: 2007/11/21 19:17:34