There was absolutely nothing reticent or retiring about the Virginia Symphony’s concert featuring three works from the early 20th century. The concert opened with Sir Arnold Bax’s highly atmospheric Tintagel. Dating from 1917-19, this tone poem has proven to be the composer’s most famous work. It’s not hard to understand why. Bax’s portrayal of the windswept, castle-crowned cliffs of Cornwall is a magnificent conception – and anyone who has visited Land’s End knows that its depiction is spot-on. In JoAnn Falletta’s vision of this sea music, the orchestra conjured up the broad vistas with all the cinematic sweep one could possibly hope to hear. Under Falletta, the middle section of the piece -- which according to the composer reflects on historical connections to the location (King Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere) took on a greater sense of urgency than one normally hears; it was a good interpretive choice because it created a greater sense of musical contrast. And then, the giant wave that ends the work was perfectly done, building inexorably before crashing headlong onto shore – and into the audience as well. It was truly one of the most thrilling moments I have ever experienced in the concert hall.

JoAnn Falletta © David Adam Beloff
JoAnn Falletta
© David Adam Beloff

 As if this oh-so-rich example of tone painting wasn’t sufficient, next up on the program was Ottorino Respighi’s equally atmospheric Fountains of Rome. The earliest of Respighi’s so-called “Roman Trilogy” (the others being The Pines of Rome and Roman Festivals), it was composed in 1916, substantially before the other two. While Fountains doesn’t possess the same degree of drama, it is a highly effective work in its own right. In this concert, the music was augmented by visual projections of the four fountains portrayed in the movements of Respighi’s score, featuring the sepia-toned photography of David Beloff.

 The performance by Falletta and the VSO was exemplary, with fine solo work by the woodwinds – the oboe solo in the opening pages and the clarinet in the final movement in particular being masterfully played. Ensemble throughout was tight and finely controlled – but with no loss of overarching effect: dreamy contemplation in the outer movements contrasting with splashy brilliance in the middle two. In the final movement portraying the fountain of the Villa Medici at sunset, crystalline tuneful percussion seemed to hover suspended above the orchestra, with the winds and strings blending beautifully as the music faded away to nothingness. The effect was so spellbinding, you could hear a pin drop in the audience.

Following the intermission, even headier musical fare was in store when the orchestra was joined by the Virginia Symphony Chorus and augmented voices plus bass-baritone soloist Charles Robert Austin for a rip-roaring presentation of Sir William Walton's Biblical oratorio Belshazzar’s Feast. Reportedly, it was conductor Sir Thomas Beecham who advised Walton to write something really big for the Leeds Triennial Music Festival in 1931 because “you’ll never hear it again.” Walton delivered in spades: a work for baritone, double chorus plus a large orchestra with heaping doses of extra brass and percussion.

History has proved Beecham’s prediction wrong, as Belshazzar’s Feast has secured an enduring place in the concert hall, and orchestras and choruses alike love to perform it. If this concert was any guide, audiences love hearing it, too. And why not? It’s a piece full of magnificent aural pageantry. Its words may come from the Bible (by way of Sir Francis Osbert Sacheverell Sitwell’s adaptation), but it’s more a human drama than it is a religious work. In the realm of forcefulness and pageantry, this performance certainly did not disappoint. The choral forces were in fine form, delivering precise entrances, fine diction, and accurate pitch in Walton’s sometimes-dense and challenging harmonic writing.

The opening lament of the Hebrews was accentuated by razor-sharp attacks from the male voices of the chorus, tempered by the plaintive cries of the women. In the portrayal of the orgiastic feast of King Belshazzar and later celebration of the Hebrews’ victory over the heathen, the VSC singers articulated the syncopation in ways that carried the audience along on the crest of its own excitement. Falletta and the VSO musicians were perfect partners, tossing themes and phrases back and forth between themselves and the chorus with complete aplomb. Falletta never allowed the music to descend into banality, and she successfully avoided the pitfalls of performances that present this music at essentially one dynamic level (loud).

Only the bass-baritone soloist was a modest disappointment in an otherwise exemplary performance. While Austin had a wonderfully rich timbre and stentorian sound, he encountered trouble with intonation in the unaccompanied passages preceding the Babylonian feast. But this was only a minor issue in a performance that was truly memorable on many levels. Not only was the whole affair über-celebratory, it was thrilling.