Polochick conducts a weekend feast

Walton at Peabody, Rossini at St. Ignatius

Stage

Theater Music Dance

April 21, 2005|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Thy sons that thou shalt beget, they shall be taken away and be eunuchs in the palace of the King of Babylon. Howl, ye, therefore."

Howl, indeed.

With opening lines like these, you can't help but be hooked on Belshazzar's Feast, a mighty work for baritone, chorus and orchestra by Sir William Walton that will be performed tomorrow at the Peabody Conservatory.

It is one of two extraordinary choral works on tap this weekend. The other is Rossini's delectable Petite Messe Solennelle. Both will be conducted by Edward Polochick, who has quite a track record for igniting hot performances in our area.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's LIVE listed an incorrect time for a concert. "Petite Messe Solennelle," at St. Ignatius Church, 740 N. Calvert St., is at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow.

The Walton score, roughly 35 minutes long, is a stunner in terms of vocal and orchestral coloring, melodic and harmonic imagination, rhythmic drive and sheer theatricality.

The 1931 piece, with a biblical text put together by Osbert Sitwell, opens with the prophecy of Israel's captivity by Babylon. The scene shifts to the feast given by Belshazzar, the Babylonian king, for "a thousand of his lords."

Then comes the awesome handwriting on the wall - "Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting" - followed by the king's death and the fall of Babylon.

Although some listeners at the first performance thought Belshazzar's Feast seemed almost pagan in its earthy drive and power, it soon came to be regarded as a major addition to England's long, noble legacy of oratorios.

The piece represents Walton at his most gripping. His surefire sense of musical drama pays off time and again, nowhere more brilliantly than in the tense, compact handwriting scene. The jubilation that follows, with brassy, percussive flurries underlining the choral outbursts, is no less potent.

Polochick will conduct the Peabody Singers and Concert Orchestra, along with the Peabody-Hopkins Chorus, in this performance. Benjamin Park, a student of acclaimed British baritone John Shirley-Quirk, will be the soloist.

On Saturday, Polochick will do double duty as conductor and pianist with his Concert Artists of Baltimore in a performance of the Rossini gem. The same forces gave a memorable account of the work in 2003. This one will be performed at St. Ignatius Church; proceeds from the concert benefit Loaves and Fishes, an outreach program for the homeless run by the church.

Petite Messe Solennelle - literally, Little Solemn Mass (it is neither) - was dubbed by the composer "the last mortal sin of my old age." The note Rossini appended to the score says it all: "Dear God, this poor little Mass is now finished. ... I was born for comic opera, as you know well! A little knowledge, a little heart, that's all. So, be blessed and grant me Paradise."

The composer of The Barber of Seville and other brilliant operas stopped writing for the stage in 1829 and effectively took early retirement. He produced only some small-scale pieces, mostly written for friends and his own amusement, over the next several decades, but then returned to the big time with this Mass in 1863.

Originally scored for voices, two pianos and harmonium, just the sound of the music makes the work distinctive enough. The style of the writing, a mix of the reverential, overtly operatic and downright bouncy, makes the Mass thoroughly disarming.

Rossini was not the most devout of men, and you can't miss the earthly joys that shine through the notes. But the Mass, which was intended for concert life, not an actual religious service, is far from profane. In the end, it sounds exactly like what the composer hoped for - a ticket to heaven.

"Belshazzar's Feast" is at Peabody Conservatory, 17 E. Mount Vernon Place at 8 p.m. tomorrow. Tickets are $18; $10 for senior citizens; $8 for students. Call: 410-659-8100, ext. 2

"Petite Messe Solennelle" is at St. Ignatius Church, 740 N. Calvert St. at 2:30 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $10. Call: 410-625-3525

For more theater, classical music and dance events, see Page 37.

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