Walton's Feast: Fit for a king
by Alisun Armstrong for Vocal Area Network
Posted January 11, 2011

Matthew LewisBelshazzar's Feast is Sir William Walton's telling of the tale of Belshazzar (also known as Balthazzar), biblical king of Babylonia circa 533 BC--a very rich, very smug man whose story in the Book of Daniel originated the phrase, "read the writing on the wall." Dr. Matthew Lewis will be leading St. George's Choral Society through this rarely performed piece for its spring concert on April 10. I sat down with him to get his thoughts on it and the upcoming performance.

Alisun Armstrong: Why did you choose this piece?

Matthew Lewis: I love it--and I love a challenge! It's like the Mount Everest of symphonic choral pieces: huge in scope, and a real triumph to conquer. It's also one of the coolest stories in the Old Testament. It's inspired everything from choral works and poetry to paintings and plays. Johnny Cash even wrote a song about it.

AA: Why is it so popular with singers and audiences?

ML: It boasts this larger-than-life grandiosity. It's scored for one of the largest ensembles of all time: a huge string section, every combination of woodwind instruments, a gigantic brass section, and multiple percussionists. And on top of all that, there are two full brass ensembles on stage! There aren't many works in the repertoire that call for so many instruments. It's a thrilling and incredible work of art.
A piece this scale requires a large chorus, of course--much of it is arranged for a double choir. I hope that people who haven't sung with St. George's Choral Society before (especially men) take advantage of this opportunity to sing it with us.

AA: What's your favorite moment in the piece?

ML: There are several, but two really stand out: the incredibly creepy part where the baritone soloist talks about the hand of God--the famous "writing on the wall" that we still talk about. And the chorus that follows, celebrating the fall of Babylon, is so uplifting. It's a real high.

AA: Have you ever conducted or performed this piece before?

ML: No, this will be my first time--and I'm really excited to do it at St. George's. The vast acoustic of the church and our forces … this piece will explode to life in the divided chancel. Walton really knew how to write for large ensembles.

AA: Will this piece help your singers grow artistically?

ML: Absolutely! I won't need to point out to people what they learned after they master this piece--that will be clear to them. Finding your part in such a work means really knowing it. But, above all, people will love the work itself. It's a great vehicle for choral singers, and a magnificent musical experience for the audience.

AA: What's on your wish list for this concert?

ML: Well, while we'll have strings, brass, woodwinds, organ and percussion to capture the color and grandeur of the piece, I would wish, of course, for a full orchestra--to be able to perform it as scored. But the sheer enormity of the piece means it's rarely performed; we're really hoping that it will introduce us to new singers and new audience members.

AA: Talk a little about St. George's Choral Society.

ML: The group is one of the oldest choral ensembles in the City--it was founded in 1817, and in its heyday was one of the foremost choirs in Manhattan. But I think it's suffered from the diminishing musicianship of the general public in the last 50 years or so. Television, recorded music, ever-busier lives … people just don't actively participate in music the way they used to. People seem to be coming back to it, though, and the choir is definitely reaping the benefits of that.

AA: To what do you credit the renewed interest?

ML: Honestly? I think it's a part of the DIY movement--more people are making things and doing things. People are participating rather than being passive observers. And singing in a choir is a great way to become part of a community. We've got a great group of people, too, and I really think the choir is near to returning to its glory days of yore. I've been rebuilding the membership, expanding its repertoire, and I can't wait to dive in and tackle this piece with them.

AA: It's a grand undertaking; what kind of prep will you need to do?

ML: It will definitely be a challenge! But every group that does it faces great challenges in putting it together. It's one of the most rhythmically complicated pieces out there. Yes, it's only about 37 minutes long, and yes, the harmonic language is adventurous, but the rhythmic complexities will require a lot of attention and a lot of rehearsal. Walton was a genius; how he managed to keep all his complex rhythmic devices sorted out is mind-boggling.

AA: What else is on the program for the spring concert?

ML: We'll open with music by a much earlier English composer, Henry Purcell: O Sing Unto the Lord and O God, Thou art my God. I chose them because they'll be a great contrast, but still have similarities to the Walton--like the choruses in dialogue.

AA: And how about the fall?

ML: Our first concert of the season will be very exciting, though bittersweet. We'll be doing Dvorak's Te Deum, another power-house piece. The performance will be in honor of one of our longest and most dedicated choir members, alto Helen Akst, who passed away last summer. Out of the dozens of choral works she sang in her decades with the choir, this was her favorite.

AA: How can people be a part of it?

ML: Auditions will be held starting at 5:30 PM on Wednesday, January 19 in St. George's Chapel, 5 Rutherford Place on Stuyvesant Park. You can make an appointment by sending an e-mail to stgeorgeschoralsociety@yahoo.com.
About Matthew Lewis

Matthew Lewis is organist and director of music at Church of the Incarnation in New York City, organist-choirmaster at Temple Israel in Lawrence, NY, and is artistic director and conductor of St. George's Choral Society. He is on the organ faculty of the Juilliard School Pre-College division, and is adjunct assistant professor of organ at Westminster Choir College. Matthew Lewis earned the doctor of musical arts degree at Juilliard, and was the recipient of a Fulbright Grant and the Annette Kade Fellowship from the Council of International Education for study in Paris. His teachers include Samuel Hsu, Jon Gillock, Robert Page and Marie-Madeleine Duruflé.

Alisun Armstrong is a copywriter and a soprano living in Queens who loves to bake cakes. You can see some of her non-edible--but award-winning--work at onpage9.com/alisuna/.
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