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CBSO Belshazzar's Feast

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by dpm (subscribe)
dpm is a Birmingham-based freelancer with experience of arts and lifestyle features.
Find out how the writing's on the wall
The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Chorus celebrated its 40th birthday with this concert at Symphony Hall.

The chorus debuted in the city's Town Hall in 1974 with Berlioz's Damnation of Faust and has since gone on to perform around the world. Under the direction of Simon Halsey, the chorus has completed more than 100 Christmas concerts, 60 performances of Beethoven's Ninth and a total of 80 Mahler choral symphonies.

This concert, conducted by John Storgards, focused on 20th century choral music with Holst's The Hymn of Jesus, Bernstein's Chichester Psalms and Walton's mighty Belshazzar's Feast.

The Hymn of Jesus is largely taken from the Biblical book of Acts and picks up its joyful images of dance and song. This was a chance for nearly 200 singers from the CBSO Chorus and the CBSO Youth Chorus to hold centre stage.

Then it was onto a whirlwind of Bernstein. Ever the showman, Bernstein may have taken the words from the Biblical Psalms but at times the Chichester Psalms sound more akin to a music hall show than a church.

The Lord is My Shepherd has plenty of moments of calm and Trinity Boys Choirboy William Gardner gave a beautiful rendition of this popular Psalm. Then Bernstein quickly introduces a riot of percussion so we can almost imagine the chorus taking to the stage to dance in a West Side Story like showstopper. It was also a great opportunity for the CBSO to get to grips with lots of fun and exuberant music.

Walton's piece with a libretto by Osbert Sitwell is based on the Biblical story of the Hebrew slaves in Babylon. It begins with a gentle lament from those slaves as they sit by the waters of Babylon and ask the question of the exile 'how shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?'

Forced to turn over their Temple riches to King Belshazzar for his feast, they fear their faith and heritage are being crushed before their very eyes. But God's punishment for Belshazzar's pride is rapid the writing appears on the wall and he is warned he is doomed. When he then drops down dead, the Hebrews can celebrate.

And so we go from the soft sorrow to shouts of acclamation and exultation. As Walton ups the ante, bringing in shrilling trumpets in place of lilting harps, the chorus becomes loud and proud.

Mark Stone sang the baritone role here, perfectly complementing the chorus and occasionally slowing down the action for a moment of reflection.

By its rousing Alleluias at the finale, there was no doubt that the chorus was thoroughly enjoying tackling the piece, which is not the easiest to carry off well.

By its close, the audience was in no doubt as to why the CBSO Chorus has gained such a highly respected reputation.
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Why? The writing's on the wall
When: 26 April 2014
Phone: 0121 345 0491
Where: Birmingham Symphony Hall
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