Washington Chorus Provides Quite a 'Feast'

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 11, 2006

William Walton's "Belshazzar's Feast" might have been written for the Washington Chorus, so well does it suit the ensemble's combined forces.

Walton's most celebrated choral piece, commissioned by the BBC in 1930 and rather more British than biblical, concluded a concert Sunday afternoon at the Kennedy Center with precisely the "joyful noise" that is called for in poet Osbert Sitwell's adaptation of passages from the books of Daniel, Revelation and Psalms.

I cannot remember the Washington Chorus, some 200 voices strong, singing with such clarity of diction, such collective energy, such unity of purpose. Even the orchestra, usually the weakest aspect in this group's performances, sounded full, eager and well drilled. Robert Shafer led the score with authority and affection, and there was a booming yet never insensitive performance of the baritone part from Ryan Kinsella. Lady Susana Walton, the composer's widow, was in attendance, a presence that surely added to the gravity of the afternoon.

Heard today, the score calls to mind an attractive melding of traditional British choral music (Elgar's "The Kingdom," perhaps, or some of the pastoral settings of Vaughan Williams), some modest dashes of modernism from Walton and -- of all things! -- Borodin's "Polovetsian Dances." No wonder countless film composers have borrowed its gestures; on that level, "Belshazzar's Feast" has been almost as influential as "Carmina Burana" or "The Rite of Spring." Yet all three of these scores, however often they are mined, retain their distinction and vitality when they are performed in the original.

Francis Poulenc's "Gloria," on the first half of the program, is a charming work that begins with a direct quote from Stravinsky (Poulenc's most-admired contemporary) and then proceeds to confect its own bright, sweet, neoclassical cosmos on top. It is as bounteous and life-embracing as the composer's "Dialogues des Carmelites" is anguished and horrific. Indeed, the "Gloria" is far and away the best of Poulenc's devotional works. At its most insouciant, it approaches the level of his marvelous early songs and piano music, with their almost-Rossinian mixture of tidiness and offhanded depth of expression.

Unfortunately, the performance was mostly a sodden one, with nerveless tempos, baggy playing from the orchestra and less than inspired singing from the chorus, which simply sounded too large and unwieldy for the piece. Maria Knapik sang her solos in an airy and pleasingly affectless high soprano voice.

The program began with "Ubi Caritas," a short and typically radiant work by Maurice Durufle, sung raptly.

Some young members of the Shenandoah University Choir made deft contributions to the afternoon.

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