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10.4.06

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.

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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.”

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