Planning the premiere of William Walton’s “Belshazzar’s Feast” in 1931, Leeds Festival Director Thomas Beecham snarked at the composer, “As you’ll never hear the thing again, my boy, why not throw in a couple of brass bands?” He may have meant it as a slur, but the young Walton added bands, and his flashy, overblown cantata became an instant favorite.
A vigorous but nuanced performance of the piece was a highlight of Saturday’s Carnegie Hall concert by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, led with strength and skill by its music director, Robert Spano.
A certain tension accompanied the orchestra’s annual New York appearance. Some members of the good-sized audience were listening to hear if there was any musical fallout from the orchestra’s September lockout. Spoiler alert: no. Disputes with management, and a turbulent week of missed rehearsals, caused no erosion in the crisp unity of varied percussion, the discipline of strings or the singing brass, with solos by acting principal trumpet David Vonderheide. The ASO, which performed the program (reportedly less well) in Atlanta’s Symphony Hall last week, came to Carnegie Hall not like a regional orchestra but like an orchestra.
It was fortunate that the first half of the concert, scheduled before the lockout, included no premieres for the musicians to learn. Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” is a staple, and Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” featured the well-prepared volunteer ASO chorus, which had missed no rehearsals at all.
Norman Mackensie, the chorus director who has filled founder Robert Shaw’s legendary shoes since Spano arrived in 2000, works toward an enticing, smooth soprano tone and phrase connections without loss of breath. Some text was intelligible even without the available word sheets — which right-thinking directors provide.
Sensitivity to gestures for sudden changes in mood and dynamics is important in “Belshazzar.” The compact cantata speeds through Israel’s desperation in captivity, a description of the thriving city of Babylon, King Belshazzar’s profaning of Israel’s sacred objects and a depiction of his pagan feast. Immediately following — in a disproportionately short paragraph lacking in gore — comes the writing on the wall, the king’s death and Babylon’s downfall. Back to pageantry: the rest of the piece is Israel’s vengeful rejoicing.
Baritone Brett Polegato captured the contrasting, exposed roles of the narrator. He speaks for fallen Israel in “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem.” Then he describes colorful Babylon’s obscene riches and feast. Finally, in hushed awe, he intones the Hebrew, “You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.”
The concert’s first half was a reminder that there’s not much Spano doesn’t know about American music. Copland’s orchestral suite, expanded from the Martha Graham ballet score of “Appalachian Spring,” is a popular repertory standard of sweetness and delicacy.
It concludes with a simple Shaker song, which Copland, in a stunning inspiration, transformed into a canon, suggesting that the young newlyweds’ happiness will roll on. Activity scenes — a revival meeting and barn raising that recall “Rodeo,” from the previous year — were hefty and full-bodied, if pushed, on Saturday. (The high-powered Spano may find it hard to relax.)
The 1965 “Chichester Psalms” is the only work sung regularly despite its being in Hebrew. Bernstein said it was “the most accessible, B-flat-majorish tonal piece I’ve ever written.” It is plotless, with well-known relatively peaceful texts — certainly compared to “Belshazzar” — and sets the 23rd Psalm for boy alto, sung here by countertenor John Holiday, currently covering in “Giulio Cesare” at the Metropolitan Opera. Though an adult voice, its lightness conveyed the pastoral mood.
Spano’s body language didn’t give away the startling intrusion into the psalm of the difficult “Why do the nations rage?,” and the men did their best, though obviously wishing that “u’l’umim ye’gu rik” were in English. The percussionists had a good time, and in the final chorus, keys and rhythms that look hard in the score came out sounding inevitable. “How pleasant it is for brethren to dwell in unity” applied to several things, including this concert.
Leslie Kandell is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times and MusicalAmerica.com.