In 1929, British composer William Walton was commissioned to compose a small work for a chorus and 15 instruments. By the time he finished it two years later, Walton’s choral symphony had morphed into a piece for an eight-part chorus, a full orchestra with an organ, full percussion section and additional brass players.
The Bangor Symphony Orchestra, joined by more than 120 voices from the University Singers and the Oratorio Society, nearly blew the roof off the Collins Center for the Arts on Sunday in a stunning performance of “Belshazzar’s Feast,” conducted by Lucas Richman.
The libretto, written by Osbert Sitwell, a close family friend of Walton’s, included biblical passages from Daniel, Isaiah, Psalms and Revelation sung in English. The combined choruses were made up of students and community members under the direction of Francis Vogt.
While the BSO has for years scheduled a spring concert with the university choral groups, the outcome rarely has sounded as compelling and seamless as it did Sunday. Baritone Isaac Bray of Sorrento performed the complex solos with a respectful gusto that honored the composer and the significance of the fall of Babylon.
Under Richman’s baton, the orchestra and chorus gave one of the richest and most robust performances during their many years collaborating. “Belshazzar’s Feast” long will be remembered as the moment the chorus gave a performance that matched the symphony’s note for note.
The concert opened with Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance,” a portion of which traditionally is played at high school and college graduations, including at the University of Maine. The entire piece is rarely played.
That is unfortunate because the music before and after the familiar march is much more intricate and interesting, but not nearly as complex and diverse as the composer’s “Enigma Variations,” which the BSO also performed Sunday.
Elgar composed 14 “variations,” each based on a friend, family member or a particular situation. He even provided information on each variation, which was included in Lara Artesani’s detailed program notes. First performed in 1899, it was the first important and major orchestral piece by a British composer, according to Artesani.
The orchestra impeccably performed both pieces with enthusiasm but did save energy for Walton’s difficult and demanding choral symphony. The players occasionally have spent themselves before intermission and returned to give lackluster performances. Richman appears to be better at getting players to pace themselves than prior conductors were.
The strength of the orchestra’s performances this season demonstrates how its members and its audience have embraced the challenging music Richman has programmed. From George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” to Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 to Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” to John Williams’ music composed for the Star Wars films, the symphony has, with every performance, improved musically and thrilled audiences. Richman deserves much of the credit for both.
The final concert of the Bangor Symphony Orchestra’s 121st season will be Celebrating Women at 3 p.m. May 7 at the Collins Center for the Arts. It will include a new work by conductor Lucas Richman. For information, call 942-5555 or visit bangorsymphony.org.
The Bangor Daily News is a sponsor of the Bangor Symphony Orchestra.