Rich Performance by the Master Chorale


Extreme loudness is not the usual commodity one expects from the stage of Segerstrom Hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa. Of course, in these nine calendar years, we have had our share of it: in Mahler symphonies, in "Aida," in Schoenberg's "Gurrelieder."

Sunday night, however, the climactic moments in those earlier performances were matched, perhaps even surpassed, when the Master Chorale of Orange County essayed the bombast in praise of hedonism that is William Walton's colorful 1931 cantata, "Belshazzar's Feast."

Under the steady leadership of William Hall, and with the incisive soloism of veteran baritone Richard Fredricks egging it on, the 125-voice Master Chorale, splendidly competing with its own Master Chorale Orchestra, filled the hall with powerful sounds.

Subtlety was not the subject of this performance, nor should it have been. Whatever its projected moral, Walton's Depression-era paean to materialism and conspicuous consumption is about excess and over-richness. By its conclusion, naturally, Babylon is brought down. But its subtext, in any case, remains: Wasn't that some town?

A brassy work in every wise, "Belshazzar's" demands fine control from both vocal and instrumental performers. This it got, for the most part, especially from the real brass of the Orchestra. Hall, perhaps, might have found more places in which to pull back the climactic waves, yet the raucousness his forces so gamely produced never actually caused pain.

Soloist Fredricks projected his contributions clearly and with dramatic ardor. This is no masterpiece, but it always makes a killing. Some nights, that seems enough.

A stronger work, though this time around less compellingly performed, is Prokofiev's cantata (from his film score) "Alexander Nevsky." Sunday night, the well-endowed--with players, not money--Master Chorale Orchestra alternately achieved genuine virtuosity and notable tentativeness in meeting its demands.

The orchestral playing in the opening movements seemed merely uncertain, as well as unbalanced. Then, in "The Battle on the Ice" and the finale, all things came together, instrumentally. Mushy enunciation aside, the Master Chorale sang well enough, if with less fervor than it mustered later.

In timbre, mezzo-soprano Catherine Stoltz proved well-cast, though limited both dynamically and in terms of text-coloration, in the ought-to-be poignant "Field of the Dead" solo.

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