The event, Belshazzar’s Feast, covered more than a single course although the main offering, the title work, was rich and exotic enough to dominate the menu. The feast comprised three servings of music by English composers, and followed the basic principles of menu planning for diners with a big appetite. First up was Benjamin Brittens tantalising The Young Persons Guide to the Orchestra, which has done duty for 66 years as precisely that. Unfortunately it was also a guide to the shortcomings of the Melbourne Town Hall as a concert venue, in which not only was the view of a third of the stage blocked from the long balconies to the left and right, the percussion section could be heard all too well booming through the floor! This was, perhaps, preparation for the even greater assault on the senses that was to come.
But to get back to Britten, the Guide is a charming work, with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra showing every section, every instrument, at its best. It was conducted with panache by visitor Bramwell Tovey, British-born but long associated with the New York Philharmonics Summertime Classics. With a passion for music that infuses every work he takes on, Tovey last year (and just recently in Sydney) delighted audiences with a Gershwin concert that displayed his conducting and pianistic skills.
Both were called on in the second work, Constant Lambert’s The Rio Grande, with the ever-resourceful MSO Chorus this time revealing its capacity to sing a mean jazz chorus or two. Mezzo Deborah Humble did very well with her solos but they were so brief in the scope of this rolling piece that you wondered if it was worth her coming out on a fairly dismal night!
Jonathan Lemalus bass-baritone, however, was essential to Belshazzars Feast, with the William Waltons complex composition requiring massive sound above all else. Lemalu was complemented superbly by the choir (once again prepared in every detail by chorus master Jonathan Grieves-Smith). Soloist, choir and orchestra responded superbly to Toveys demands for light and shade, volume and hush as the story unfolded: a Biblical blockbuster of partying and carousing, the inevitable wrath and smiting from on high, and more massive sound to end as voices were (perhaps strategically?) lifted in praise of the Lord. This, incidentally, was the point at which the sound was a little too massive for me, trapped in my seat just metres in front of the brass players positioned behind the back rows of the two balconies (supplementing yet more in the body of the orchestra). However, it did not stop my overall enjoyment of the program.
Like others presented at the Town Hall over the past year, it might deserve another airing when the MSO returns to its home at the acoustically superior, renovated Hamer Hall. Roll on August!
Suzanne Yanko reviewed this performance at Melbourne Town Hall May 25, 2012