Sons may have been taken away for eunuchs, but audience had a ball.

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
October 9, 2014

There’s nothing quite as much fun in the choral repertoire as William Walton’s masterly 1931 evocation of Babylonian licentiousness and comeuppance. Belshazzar’s Feast has deservedly held its place in the repertoire, and last night’s performance by the massed ranks of Sydney Youth Orchestra, Sydney Philharmonia Orchestra and the 350-or-so singers of the Sydney Philharmonia Choir and Festival Chorus showed why. Their sons may have been taken away and been eunuchs in the palace of the King of Babylon, but these musicians (and their audience) were clearly having a ball (pun possibly intended).

Before the main feast, the appetisers were equally entertaining. Borodin’s Polotsvian Dances were given a brisk, cheerful reading by conductor Brett Weymark, allowing the orchestra maximum chances to glitter and be gay. Articulation is clearly a strength here and most solos were impressively secure with clarinet outstanding. The 100-strong chorus were perfectly balanced by Weymark whose attention to dynamic contrasts was exemplary throughout. The antiphonally placed ladies were warm-toned in the big “Stranger in Paradise” tune though tenors were a little stretched in their adulation of Khan Konchak. The big push when it came was excellent with rasping trombones and tuba, some really fine timpani playing and choir strong and confident.

The big new commission on the program was Matthew Hindson’s intriguing It is Better to be Feared than Loved, a setting for large orchestra and chorus of a text by Machiavelli. Hindson’s choice of words, given our politicians’ general lack of accountability, seemed timely. “Politics have no relation to morals”, sang the chorus. “The promise given was a necessity of the past, the broken promise is a necessity of the present” – ouch! There was something almost Stalinist about the brazen sounds that Hindson conjured for the start of the work, but there was a lot of fun too – particularly in the cheeky section where the choir sang “I’m not interested in preserving the status quo”. Beautifully scored, with the energy and dazzle of early John Adams, Hindson deployed harp, jazzy drums, orchestral piano and an array of extra percussion in a syncopated frenzy that had echoes of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. Orchestra and choir handled this all with great aplomb, equally bold and confident, and clearly enjoying themselves. If I said that the work had the crazy ambition of Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony, I say that as a Brian true believer.

On to the main course then, and the orchestra in Belshazzar’s Feast was again on fine form, surmounting most of Walton’s hurdles with relative ease. Cellos and bases were most satisfying in the lengthy lament. Recovering from a slightly underwhelming opening, the choir were mostly excellent in the demanding first section, focused and well disciplined especially when the dynamics rose above mezzo forte. Top voices were a little pushed higher up when required to sing quietly, and there were a few ragged endings, but Weymark’s account was invariably well paced and played to their strengths. Perhaps the choral word painting early on could have been taken a bit further – over-politeness was never one of Walton’s faults.

Peter Coleman-Wright was a first rate baritone soloist, pitching his delivery with just the right degree of dramatic welly and relishing portentous phrases like “the souls of men” and “fingers of a man’s hand”. His declaration, when it came, that Belshazzar’s kingdom was divided was deliciously satisfying.

For part two, the feast proper, Walton throws everything at his musical canvas – there is little to beat the sheer over-the-top splendour of it all. In response, everything went up a gear. In a pacey and exciting reading, brass and especially tuba were outstanding. The chorus too caught fire. “Yea, drank from the sacred vessels” could have stripped paint at 40 feet! The top sopranos were excellent on the stratospheric “God of gold” phrase and Weymark managed to whip up a superb swagger in the “Praise ye the Gods” section. The extra brass choirs were excellent, though it would have been nice to have had them spread further back in the auditorium.

The final section was played for maximum jollity – this is surely some of the happiest music ever written. Trumpets were terrific here with not a split note in sight and the percussion were clearly enjoying themselves. The Alleluias were faster than I’ve heard before, but it helped make the semi chorus flow – a section that can sometimes drag. The final peroration was suitably overwhelming with top sopranos again stunning as their lines climbed higher and higher on “Sing, sing aloud”.

A most entertaining evening, then, proving once again that Israelites have more fun and concubines are not to be tolerated. Belshazzar’s Feast is a high-stakes challenge for both choir and orchestra. If not every fence was jumped perfectly cleanly, still Weymark’s horse came in with considerable style and deserved the enthusiasm of the crowd.