There aren’t many pieces in classical music that are much like Sir William Walton’s Façade. Sub-titled “An Entertainment”, it is poetry set to music that’s nothing if not entertaining. In pre-concert remarks to the audience by conductor JoAnn Falletta, she noted that Façade received its first public performance in 1923, just as England and the world were emerging from a global influenza pandemic – an eerie parallel with our own times.

JoAnn Falletta
© David Adam Beloff

The irreverent, devil-may-care character of Façade can be viewed as the world returning to fun and frivolity (and perhaps also delivering a great big raspberry to the pandemic). Not that everyone was enjoying the joke; one headline at the time of the 1923 premiere read “Drivel That They Paid to Hear.” Today we know better than to attempt to take Dame Edith Sitwell’s poetry literally. Walton himself remarked that much of the poetry is notable for its clever alliteration rather than the meaning of the individual words or phrases.

For those who are familiar with Dame Edith’s own recitation of her poetry on the classic Columbia/Sony recording of Façade from the early 1950s, tonight’s Virginia Arts Festival performance featuring three reciters required some adjustment of expectations. Hila Plitmann’s English-accented contributions came closest to Dame Edith’s own interpretation, while Kevin Deas’ stentorian bass occasionally veered into operatic territory – which was perhaps to be expected considering his extraordinary talents in singing oratorio parts.

Particular highlights of the VAF performance of the 21 numbers that make up the original Façade score included the Polka, recited by Deas with all the panache one could hope to hear. Dressed in a flamenco-inspired gown, Plitmann’s stage presence was very expressive while bringing a notable fashion-flair to the proceedings. Among the most effective of her numbers were the moody, musing Four in the Morning and En Famille. On a lighter note, Plitmann was sprightly and coquettish in the Valse and Popular Song. All three reciters joined forces in the final number Sir Beelzebub to close out the piece in winsome fashion.

Sir William Walton’s musical contribution to Façade is as important as the poetry itself. The composer is never more ingratiating than here, offering up melodies that are in turn catchy and attractive – and fascinating everywhere. Moreover, the skill with which Walton employs the eight instrumentalists at his disposal is more than impressive. Falletta and the Virginia Arts Festival assembled a stellar group of musicians, including several section principals from the Virginia Symphony Orchestra along with visiting artists.

As the only stringed instrument called for in the score, the cello plays an important anchor role in many of the numbers – in the melodies and in percussive treatments as well. Under JoAnn Falletta’s deft hand, ensemble and balances were tight; the only drawbacks were several of narrator Fred Child’s numbers which were difficult to hear over the music (this was not an issue with the other reciters). In the opening all-instrumental Fanfare and in various numbers such as the Tarantella and Polka, the ensemble delivered satisfyingly robust sounds when going at full throttle – not to mention Rob Cross' impressive percussion acrobatics which could have easily been shared between two players and still kept both of them busy.

In short, this presentation of Façade was a ton of fun – and it was one that connected well on a purely musical level. Indeed, the performance underscored how Sitwell's poetry is an extension of the musical fabric itself, with no need to pay much attention to the actual words at all.