November 2008: Adams and Walton

John Adams: Harmonium
William Walton: Belshazzar's Feast

Exeter Cathedral, Saturday 15 November 2008

In this joint concert with Exeter Philharmonic Choir, we perform two exciting masterworks from the 20th century, both of them demanding and flamboyant, and both requiring large-scale vocal and orchestral forces. The concert will also premiere a new work by Andrew Millington, commissioned and performed by the Devon County Junior Choir.

Source: Margaret Smith
A shortened version of this review appeared in the Exeter Express and Echo on the 28 November 2008.

Exeter Philharmonic Choir, Exeter Festival Chorus, and The Sinfonietta at Exeter Cathedral, with Nigel Perrin, Andrew Millington, Richard Studt, Alan Opie.

It's probably true to say that Sir William Walton's abrasive score for Belshazzar's Feast gave the English choral tradition a much-needed shot of mustard.

The words are mainly from the Bible but this high-voltage work upset some cathedral authorities of the 1930s with its barbaric splendour.

Last Saturday night's performance in Exeter Cathedral was as dramatic as it should be, with Alan Opie, baritone, as soloist. Andrew Millington, conducting, led the choirs and orchestra into a biting intensity, giving plenty of weight to the Gloria, while the writing on the wall never fails to chill.

The Feast was one work in a group of three. Andrew Millington wrote A Sequence for Devon especially for this evening's concert, featuring the newly-formed Devon County Junior Choir. This was the work's first performance, consisting of six songs from different parts of the county, ending with a lively version of Widdecombe Fair. It will be available for the children of Devon as part of the government's National Singing Programme.

The first item was Harmonium, written by John Adams and divided into three movements. The music, says the composer, was taking shape before he decided to set a text and settled on poems by John Donne and Emily Dickinson, musing on transcendental love and portraying the human experience from love to death, passion, and back to nothingness.

The orchestra made good use of percussion while the voices relied on a single tone coming out of nothingness and building to intensity before subsiding again into eternity. Plenty of poetic imagination here, picked up and interpreted by the conductor into a piece of heartbreaking beauty.