Toronto Symphony Orchestra (Sir Andrew Davis, conductor), with Huddersfield Choral Society (Gregory Batsleer, director), and The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir (Noel Edison, director). At Roy Thomson Hall. June 3.
“A piece I am rather fond of” was how Sir Andrew Davis — former TSO music director, present TSO conductor laureate and future TSO interim artistic director — described William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast in his spoken remarks in Roy Thomson Hall.
Well, rather. Davis selected this splashy biblical cantata of 1931 as the central element of the program with which the orchestra inaugurated its new home in 1982. An off-brand choice, to be sure, although it diverted attention from the acoustical problems of the facility by producing in a good deal of what is referred to in Scripture as joyful noise.
Roy Thomson Hall sounds much better now, after its renovation, and while I do not remember the specifics of the 1982 Belshazzar so much as an uneasy feeling that something was wrong, I am prepared to bet that the Friday performance with the combined forces of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir (Noel Edison, director), and the visiting Huddersfield Choral Society (Gregory Batsleer, director) of England was a superior sonic experience.
Much of tale of the wicked Babylonian king is told in choral fortissimo, and it was a credit to all the participants – numbering almost 200, if my count is accurate — that words were often clear enough to be understood without the support of the printed text.
Brass were hearty, strings full of fire. Percussion had a field day with the false gods of gold, silver, iron, wood, stone and brass. The RTH organ added impressively to the climactic (but entirely vain) accreditation of Belshazzar as “King of Kings.”
King of Kings? Well, as the Book of Daniel tells us, the writing was on the wall. This episode elicits Walton’s most original music. The final minutes, in cinematic mode, represent a lower order of inspiration. Baritone Alexander Dobson sounded assured with an orchestra behind him, but those ungrateful unaccompanied solos require a double-dark sonority.
Most important, the forces were effectively balanced through thick and thin and the beat was consistently alive. This is good news a week after Sir Andrew oversaw an admirable performance of Beethoven’s Seventh. While the appointment of Davis as a placeholder though 2019-20 has hardly fired the imagination of the public, the musicians have at least been matched with a conductor they know and respect.
Before intermission came Berg’s Violin Concerto of 1936, a score as solemn as the Walton is sensational. It is acclaimed as a masterpiece. I confess that I have not yet signed up. The 12-tone art seems self-conscious, the lofty rhetoric meandering, the allusion to Bach convenient.
This is not to say that concertmaster Jonathan Crow (wearing a medical boot and sitting on a stool) did not play with the utmost refinement. Intonation was superb. There was bravado at the start the second section but otherwise his approach was that of a chamber musician responding to interior values.
Earlier we heard Hindemith’s Concert Music for Brass and Strings Op. 50, a heavy-handed illustration of why so few works with this scoring exist. This was a “Decades Project” concert, meaning the music hailed from the 1930s. The exception was the opening “Sesquie” by Luc Martin. Titled Hero’s Fanfare, the piece moved from pastoral to urban mode and back. The hero never materialized.