"Belshazzar's Feast is among the most difficult works in the choral symphonic repertoire."
If anyone would know, it's Kathy Saltzman Romey, artistic director of the Minnesota Chorale. Since March, she has been preparing her singers for their performances this weekend with the Minnesota Orchestra and conductor Andrew Litton. You can hear a live broadcast of Friday's concert at 8 p.m. on Classical MPR, hosted by Julie Amacher.
Belshazzar's Feast, by English composer William Walton, is a raucous oratorio first performed in 1931. It recounts the story of the Jews' Babylonian exile, the midfeast judgment of God against King Belshazzar, and the celebration of the toppling of his oppressive regime. It's heady, exuberant stuff that Walton brings to brilliant life with a huge chorus, huge orchestra, and even two brass bands.
"I think that Walton is a master in terms of the way he uses color in the orchestra and chorus to depict this story," Romey says. "The writing is so vivid that I have to constantly hold the chorus back and say, 'You can't sing quite that loud yet!' Over 10 scenes, the story grows and grows and grows, leading toward the final climax and these huge songs of praise. In the end, it's a sheer dance of joy."
Part of the way that Walton achieved this effect was by splitting the vocal writing into a mind-bending number of incredibly difficult parts.
Romey explains: "It opens with men's chorus and larger mixed chorus. Later there's a semi-chorus followed by a double chorus. There is even a double semi-chorus. There are also a cappella passages where the orchestra suddenly drops out completely and then dramatically re-enters, and wonderful sections of dialogue between chorus and orchestra. It's a remarkable and exciting work in the nature of Walton's film scores. But unlike other cantatas or oratorios we've performed, the chorus is on almost all the time."
How does one possibly go about preparing such a piece for performance? Romey tackled the myriad of challenges head-on, committing to months of score study, contacting colleagues who've prepared the work, recommending the Litton recording of the Walton to her singers, and running rehearsals like a game of time-management Tetris.
"Sometimes I'll work with just one group while the other group breaks, and then I'll bring back the other group and work with them," she says. "It all comes down to time management."
For Americans, one of the challenges of presenting Balshazzar's Feast is our relative unfamiliarity with the sprawling score. The work is in Britons' blood, Romey observes, but not many Americans'.
"Of the 150 singers," Romey says, "I had only a handful that knew the work and a few who had sung it previously. That's probably one of the greatest challenges of any symphony chorus, is to begin the preparation of a choral symphonic work that they don't know and have not heard before. We're coming at this completely fresh, which is exciting. But it has put very large demands on the individual choristers to spend a great deal of time preparing and practicing their parts outside of rehearsal.
"While they do that in any case, this work is so unfamiliar and has many more technical challenges in it. The writing is often in extremely high range and quite athletic; suddenly, the music shifts and the choir sings very softly and expressively. They also have many passages that move at incredibly high speed. Just getting the text out and articulating it while creating the mood and drama precisely and accurately in the moment has been something we've really focused on."
As if the Feast wasn't filling enough, in the first half of the concert, the Chorale will also present Bernstein's 1965 work Chichester Psalms. ("It's classic Bernstein," Romey says. "If you love West Side Story or Candide or any of his musicals, this is Bernstein in miniature form.") The Psalms provide a prelude of sorts to Walton's ecstatic celebration of freedom, quoting Psalms praising God and feelings of peace, freedom, and unity.
The program as a whole takes listeners on a "dramatic journey in music which is so descriptive and incredibly colorful," Romey says. "The singers love their role in narrating this story in detail."
The double billing may have been a challenge to put together, but it's the kind of challenge the Chorale (and Romey) relishes.
"The Minnesota Chorale," she says, "is tremendously excited to collaborate with the orchestra and Andrew Litton in presenting these amazing works."