2011–2012 Season

English Masters

  • March 11, 2012

  • Sunday | 3:00 PM
  • First Free Methodist Church
  • Alastair Willis, conductor
  • Erich Parce, baritone
Georg Frideric Handel (1685–1759)
Zadok the Priest, HWV 258
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958)
Five Variants of “Dives and Lazarus”
Benjamin Britten (1913–1976)
Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Op. 33a
—Intermission—
William Walton (1902–1983)
Belshazzar’s Feast

Grammy-nominated conductor Alastair Willis, who wowed OSSCS audiences last season, returns with a stellar all-British program highlighted by William Walton’s spectacular oratorio Belshazzar’s Feast, featuring baritone soloist Erich Parce. The concert also includes Benajmin Britten’s evocative Four Sea Interludes from the opera Peter Grimes, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ moving Five Variants on “Dives and Lazarus” for harp and strings, and Georg Friderich Handel’s jubilant Zadok the Priest.

Please join us at 3:00 p.m. on Sunday, March 11, 2012, at First Free Methodist Church (3200 3rd Ave W), across from Seattle Pacific University, with plentiful free parking available. Tickets (just $20, less for students and seniors, and free for children!) are available online, by phone at 1-800-838-3006, or at the door on the afternoon of the concert.

About the Conductor

Grammy-nominated conductor Alastair Willis served as the Associate Conductor of the Seattle Symphony from 2000 to 2003. He previously held the position of Assistant Conductor with the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops, and Music Director of the Cincinnati Symphony Youth Orchestra.

Mr. Willis has guest-conducted orchestras around the world, including the Chicago Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Calgary Philharmonic, Mexico City Philharmonic, Orquestra Sinfônica Brasileira, Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie, Hong Kong Sinfonietta, China National Orchestra (Beijing) and the Silk Road Ensemble (with Yo-Yo Ma), among others. His recording of Ravel’s L&trsquo;Enfant et les Sortilèges with the Nashville Symphony and Opera for Naxos was Grammy-nominated for Best Classical Album in 2009.

Last season, Mr. Willis made return engagements with the Florida Orchestra, Orquestra Sinfônica Brasileira, Tulsa Symphony, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Civic Orchestra of Chicago, River Oaks Chamber Orchestra (Houston), Rio International Cello and Marrowstone Music Festivals, and made his debuts with the Toronto Symphony, Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin, Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra, Amarillo Symphony, Lake Union Civic Orchestra and Orchestra Seattle and the Seattle Chamber Singers.

This season, he returns to the Chicago Symphony, Calgary Philharmonic, Civic Orchestra of Chicago, River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, Omaha Symphony, Tulsa Symphony, Qatar Philharmonic and OSSCS, and debuts with the Illinois Symphony, Illinois Chamber Orchestra and California Symphony.

Born in Acton, Massachusetts, Mr. Willis lived with his family in Moscow for five years before settling in Surrey, England. He received his bachelor’s degree with honors from England’s Bristol University and an education degree from Kingston University. He won a scholarship in 1996 to study with Larry Rachleff at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University, graduating with a Master of Music degree in 1999.

About the Soloist

Baritone Erich Parce has sung with opera companies throughout North America and Europe, including the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, Seattle Opera, Greater Miami Opera, L’Opéra de Nice, L’Opéra de Montréal and Italy’s Spoleto Festival. His repertoire ranges from dramatic lead roles in Carlisle Floyd’s The Passion of Jonathan Wade and Of Mice and Men (at Miami Opera and San Diego Opera) to the comedy of Dandini in La Cenerentola and Figaro in Le nozze di Figaro.

With the Seattle Symphony, Mr. Parce has performed Amahl and the Night Visitors, Messiah, Carmina Burana and David Diamond’s On Sacred Ground (recorded for the Delos label). As a frequent guest of Music of Remembrance, Mr. Parce has performed and recorded world premieres of Paul Schoenfield’s 2003 Pulitzer Prize finalist Camp Songs and Lori Laitman’s Holocaust 1944 and The Seed of Dream.

Program Notes

Georg Frideric Handel
Zadok the Priest, HWV 258

Handel was born in Halle, Germany, on February 23, 1685, and died in London on April 14, 1759. He composed this anthem in September 1727 for the coronation of King George II on October 11 of that year. In addition to chorus, the work employs 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 3 trumpets, timpani, organ and strings.

On February 20, 1727, the House of Lords passed legislation naturalizing the German composer Georg Frideric Handel. Shortly thereafter, King George I of England granted his assent and Handel became a British citizen. When George I died less than four months later, his son ascended to the throne as George II, postponing a formal coronation until October. Ordinarily, any new music for such a ceremony would have been the responsibility of the Organist and Composer of the Chapel Royal, but after that gentleman died on August 14, London newspapers reported in early September that “Mr Hendel, the famous Composer to the opera, is appointed by the King to compose the Anthem at the Coronation which is to be sung in Westminster Abbey at the Grand Ceremony.”

Handel actually composed four anthems for the occasion: Zadok the Priest, The King Shall Rejoice, Let Thy Hand Be Strengthened and My Heart is Inditing. For the text of Zadok the Priest, the composer drew upon I Kings 1:38–40. A hushed orchestral introduction sets the stage for one of Handel’s most glorious choral entrances, followed by lively dance-like music in 3/4 time before returning to 4/4 for a suitably regal conclusion. In the ultimate tribute to England’s greatest adopted composer, each subsequent coronation ceremony for a British monarch has included Zadok the Priest.

Ralph Vaughan Williams
Five Variants of “Dives and Lazarus”

Vaughan Williams was born at Down Ampney, Gloustershire, England, on October 12, 1872, and died on August 26, 1958, in London. He composed this work for string orchestra and 2 harps in 1939. Adrian Boult conducted the New York Philharmonic in its premiere at Carnegie Hall on June 10 of that year.

To represent Great Britain at the 1939 New YorkWorld’s Fair, the British Council commissioned works dedicated “to the people of America” from four English composers, to be presented at a pair of concerts: the first, on June 9, premiered Arnold Bax’s Symphony No. 7; the following evening saw the debuts of a piano concerto by Arthur Bliss and an instrumental setting of a folk song by Ralph Vaughan Williams. (A scheduling conflict with the soloist delayed the premiere of the fourth piece, William Walton’s violin concerto.)

Vaughan Williams’ love of English folk song had always played an important role in his compositional style—even his works that did not explicitly employ a folk tune often featured original melodies that seemed to have been plucked from deep within the very soil of his homeland. He first became acquainted with the tune known to him as “Dives and Lazarus” (after lyrics referencing the parable in Luke 16) in 1893 while a student at the Royal College of Music. He would set it for both solo voice and for chorus, use it as a hymn tune in The English Hymnal, and incorporate it into a number of other works, including the English Folk Song Suite for wind band, the Festival Te Deum composed for the 1937 coronation of King George VI, and his score for the 1949 documentary The Dim Little Island.

“When I hear the fifth variation in [Elgar’s Enigma Variations],” Vaughan Williams wrote in 1934, “I feel the same sense of familiarity, the same sense of something peculiarly belonging to me as an Englishman which I also felt when I first heard…‘Lazarus.’” It therefore was not surprising that he chose this tune for a composition that would represent England to the world at large—and, two decades later, would be performed at Vaughan Williams’ own funeral at Westminster Abbey. “These variants,” the composer wrote, “are not exact replicas of traditional tunes, but rather reminiscences of various versions in my own collection and those of others.”

Reviewing the premiere for The New York Times, Olin Downes reported: “The variants are in character with the air, and stick closely to it. They also cause Mr. Williams to return after recent excursions in other fields to modal harmonization and modal counterpoint, which he loves and which he writes so well. There are a few passages which remind one of antiphonal effects in the far more elaborate score of the same composer’s variations on the theme of Tallis…. At the same time, there is a variety of pace and mood, sometimes gay, sometimes reflective, always poetical.”

Benjamin Britten
Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Op. 33a

Edward Benjamin Britten was born at Lowestoft, Suffolk, England, on November 22, 1913, and died at Aldeburgh, Suffolk, on December 4, 1976. He began work on Peter Grimes in 1942; the opera received its premiere at London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre on June 7, 1945. Six days later, Britten conducted the London Philharmonic at the Cheltenham Festival in the first performance of the Four Sea Interludes, scored for 2 flutes (one doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (one doubling E♭ clarinet), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp and strings.

In May 1939, four months before Great Britain declared war on Germany, composer Benjamin Britten and his lifelong partner Peter Pears—both pacifists and conscientious objectors—set sail for North America. They first spent time in Quebec before settling on Long Island, where Britten considered becoming a U.S. citizen. Although he produced a number of important compositions there, a streptococcal infection threatened his health, so he accepted an invitation to spend the summer of 1941 in Escondido, California.

During that stay, Britten and Pears reacquainted themselves with the writings of George Crabbe, particularly his 1810 narrative poem The Borough, which featured a misanthropic antihero “untouched by pity” named Peter Grimes, a fisherman from the seaside village of Aldeburgh (where Britten and Pears would later establish a music festival). The composer sent a postcard to a friend, enthusing: “We’ve just rediscovered the poetry of George Crabbe (all about Suffolk!) & are very excited—maybe an opera one day!”

Crabbe’s poetry not only suggested the scenario for an opera, but the Suffolk location—so near to where Britten had grown up—fortified a desire to return to England. The task of securing wartime passage across the Atlantic took six months, during which time Britten visited Boston for a performance of his Sinfonia da Requiem. Boston Symphony music director Serge Koussevitzky inquired whether the composer had given thought to writing a full-scale opera. When Britten answered in the affirmative, but expressed concern about the financial realities of such a project, the conductor promised to supply funds through his Koussevitzky Music Foundation in exchange for a promise to dedicate the work to his recently deceased wife.

Back in England, Britten and Pears worked out a scenario for the opera, turning to Montagu Slater to craft a libretto. An enthusiastic reception greeted Peter Grimes upon its June 1945 premiere, followed the next year by a student performance at Tanglewood (conducted by Leonard Bernstein) and a 1948 Metropolitan Opera debut. The work quickly established itself at the core of the 20th century operatic repertoire, cementing Britten’s reputation among the most respected British composers of his era.

“For most of my life, I have lived closely in touch with the sea,” Britten wrote. “My parents’ house in Lowestoft directly faced the sea, and my life as a child was colored by the fierce storms that sometimes drive ships on our coast and ate away whole stretches of our neighboring cliffs. In writing Peter Grimes, I wanted to express my awareness of the perpetual struggle of men and women whose livelihood depends on the sea—difficult though it is to treat such a universal subject in theatrical form.”

This expression assumes its purest form in the six interludes that serve as preludes to the opera’s three acts or as musical bridges for scene changes. As Britten biographer Humphrey Carpenter wrote, these instrumental passages “portray the most fully developed character in the opera…the sea itself.” The composer extracted four of the six for concert performance (publishing a fifth, “Passacaglia,” separately), creating what would become one of his most often-performed orchestral works (second only to A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra).

“Dawn” provides a transition from the opera’s prologue (in which Peter Grimes testifies at an inquest into the recent death of his young apprentice) to the first act. High-register violins suggest the whispering wind, while sixteenth-note phrases in clarinets, violas and harp imitate rippling waves and majestic brass chords evoke the glow of the morning sun.

“Sunday Morning” opens the opera’s second act with overlapping horn chords imitating church bells calling the townsfolk to worship, answered by a playful motive for woodwinds, strings and trumpets that suggests the glistening morning sun upon the waves. A lyrical string line intervenes, introducing the melody to which Ellen Orford (the schoolmistress whom Peter wishes to marry) will sing about “glitter of waves and glitter of sunlight” when the action of the opera resumes.

“Moonlight” serves as a counterpart to “Dawn” as the third act begins. Gently swelling chords from horns, bassoons and low strings create a nocturnal seascape with waves lapping upon the shore. Pointillistic interjections from flute, harp, xylophone and trumpet intrude upon the calm as the surging chords build to a climax and then recede.

“Storm” returns to the action of the opera’s first act, providing a menacing depiction of violent weather while simultaneously revealing Peter’s inner turmoil. The storm seems to subside as a broad violin melody recalls Peter’s aria (“What harbour shelters peace”) that precedes this interlude, but the turbulent storm music still hovers in the background, hushed yet nervous, eventually rebuilding into a tremendous onslaught that brings the orchestral work crashing to a conclusion—music that also closes the opera’s first act.

Jeff Eldridge

William Walton
Belshazzar’s Feast

William Turner Walton was born in Oldham, Lancashire, England, on March 29, 1902, and died at Foro d’Ischia, Italy, on March 8, 1983. He began composing Belshazzar’s Feast in January 1930, completing the oratorio by spring of the following year. Malcom Sargent conducted the premiere at the Leeds Festival on October 8, 1931. In addition to solo baritone and mixed chorus, Walton employs an orchestra consisting of 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 3 clarinets (one doubling E♭ clarinet, another doubling bass clarinet), alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, 2 harps, piano, organ and strings.

A largely self-taught composer who worked slowly and deliberately and made many revisions of his music, William Walton was a self-critical perfectionist who neither produced a great number of compositions over his 60-year career, nor mentored or much influenced the next generation of composers. At first characterized as a “modernist,” he eventually became known as English music’s “Grand Old Man,” following Ralph Vaughan Williams in this unofficial position. Walton lived completely for his art. His music— influenced by that of composers such as Stravinsky and Sibelius and by jazz—deals powerfully and vividly with human emotions, but deep beneath the surface of nearly all of his compositions an uneasy current of personal frustration or sense of loss seems always to flow.

The son of a contralto and a stern, ill-tempered singing teacher and organist who directed music at the local church, young “Willie” became acquainted with excellent choral literature in his father’s choir, also studying piano and violin. The lad was accepted as a 10-year-old chorister of Christ Church Cathedral at Oxford, but spent so much of his time as an undergraduate (at 16, one of Oxford’s youngest) studying the scores of “new music” by French and Russian composers that, having neglected his Greek, Latin and algebra, he failed enough of the required exams to cause him to be “sent down” from the university in 1920. He did, however, write some pieces that attracted the attention of eminent English composers, and he made friends with several poets—among them Sacheverell Sitwell, who, with his siblings, Osbert and Edith, invited Walton to lodge with them as an “adopted, or elected, brother” when the young musician left school with neither degree nor financial support nor plans for his future. (Walton said that he decided to become a composer in order to avoid returning to a home he hated after his voice broke.) Moving into the Sitwells’ attic (“I went for a few weeks and stayed about 15 years,” he later remembered), he was supported, encouraged, introduced to the beauties of Italy, and immersed in the high culture of the day, spending the majority of his time composing.

In 1922, he produced the highly original and controversial “entertainment” Façade, in which a small chamber ensemble accompanies the recitation of poetry by Edith Sitwell. Walton’s 1929 viola concerto was immediately recognized as a masterwork, a success soon followed by that of the mammoth “choral symphony” Belshazzar’s Feast, premiered in 1931. As the 1930s transpired, Walton gradually detached himself from the Sitwells and found other patrons, notably Lady Alice Wimbourne, 22 years his senior, with whom he enjoyed a lengthy and loving relationship, while composing film scores contributed to his financial independence. In 1948, in order to distract him from his grief over the death of Lady Wimbourne, Walton was sent as a delegate to a conference of the Performing Rights Society in Buenos Aires, where he met, quickly courted and married Susana Gil Passo, 24 years his junior. By the 1950s they had settled on the Italian island of Ischia and spent the rest of their lives enjoying their commodious villa and lush garden.

As he aged, Walton’s compositional activity diminished, partly because his slowly (and laboriously) composed grand opera Troilus and Cressida and other postwar pieces did not meet with the same enthusiasm that had greeted his earlier works, and partly because his health began to fail. He did continue to write short choral works, to tour as an excellent conductor of his own music, to revise previous compositions, and to receive numerous honors (among them, a 1951 knighthood). Upon his death at age 80, he was best remembered for the remarkable Façade, concertos for viola, violin and cello, the 1935 Symphony No. 1, the coronation marches Crown Imperial and Orb and Sceptre, many outstanding film scores (including Laurence Olivier’s 1944 Henry V) and Belshazzar’s Feast, one of the most sensational and popular of all modern English choral works.

In August 1929, the BBC commissioned Walton and two other talented young composers to write works for “small chorus, small orchestra of not exceeding 15, and soloist.” Because the piece would premiere on radio, Walton was encouraged to select a subject from the Bible (in the Handelian oratorio tradition) with which the general public would be familiar. The composer’s friend Osbert Sitwell thus proceeded to select passages from Daniel 5, Psalms 137 and 81, Revelation 18, and Isaiah 13 and 39 with which to tell, in a splendid libretto, the tale of the demise of Belshazzar, King of Babylon, the son of Nebuchadnezzar and the last king before the rise to power of the Medes and Persians (Walton said that he himself was not acquainted with this famous story). Constant Lambert, one of the other commissioned composers, had recently been acclaimed for a large-scale work for chorus, piano and orchestra that combined jazz with a romantic musical style, which Walton considered superior to his own music, and this opportunity to outdo Lambert seems to have goaded the competitive and ambitious 27-year-old Walton into producing a sumptuously orchestrated, rhythmically explosive work that rapidly outgrew the BBC’s stipulated forces. In fact, Walton reported that, during rehearsals at the Leeds Festival, Sir Thomas Beecham, betraying some doubts about the longevity ofWalton’s astonishing new piece, “declared in his best seigneurial manner, ‘As you’ll never hear the thing again, my boy, why not throw in a couple of brass bands?’ So thrown in they were.” (This afternoon’s performance omits the brass bands, employing the forces Walton originally specified.)

Work on Belshazzar’s Feast did not progress rapidly; Walton later wrote that he “got landed on the word ‘gold’—was there from May to December 1930 perched, unable to move either to right or left or up or down.” With a premiere now set for the 1931 Leeds Festival (Walton never did fulfill his BBC commission), “some of the older singers” who finally received their parts in March 1931 supposedly “muttered resentfully about the score’s irregular metres and other hazards.” After six months of rehearsal, the first performance of this unique “choral symphonic poem” achieved a gigantic success, with critics labeling it a milestone in British music. The work burst the bonds of the traditional cantata and oratorio forms, employing jazz’s jagged, exuberant, ever-shifting rhythms and shimmering, auroral harmonies, as well as waves of coruscating orchestral and choral color, abrupt, ear-shocking contrasts, and faithfully followed text accents to whirl listeners into a decadent world of pagan debauchery and sweep them out again into sonic canyons echoing with cataracts of thanksgiving and praise.

In Belshazzar’s Feast, the chorus represents several thousand deported Jewish captives, while a solo baritone serves as narrator. An arresting trombone blast begins the work and introduces the prophet Isaiah’s warning, dissonantly chanted by men’s voices, that the faithlessness of the Jewish people will be punished. A bitterly beautiful lament in the mouths of the exiles is soon transformed into frenzied outrage as they anticipate the downfall of the mighty city of Babylon. The unaccompanied soloist catalogs Babylon’s treasures in a passage thatWalton called “the shopping list,” after which the chorus describes the feast made by King Belshazzar with music as brilliant as the furnishings of the banquet hall. A trumpet fanfare encourages the revelers to extol the glories of various idols: glittering brass and percussion march in honor of the god of gold; the sparkling sounds of female voices, flute, glockenspiel and triangle celebrate the god of silver; the god of iron is acclaimed with the striking of an anvil; the rasps of violin bows’ wooden backs scraping the instruments’ strings and the hollow clacking of the xylophone depict the god of wood; and trumpets and trombones join the praise of the god of brass.

At this point the “feast motive” reappears in the chorus and leads to the praise of Belshazzar himself. The solo baritone describes the appearance of a disembodied hand that begins, to a shivering “skeletal” accompaniment, to write on the wall of the banquet chamber, terrifying the drunken king: “MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.” The men of the chorus intone the interpretation of these mysteriously menacing words (“Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting”) in a passage reminiscent of the work’s opening measures. Belshazzar is struck dead that very night, the chorus screams in horror at his death, and violent strokes of an orchestral sword divide Belshazzar’s kingdom.

The triumphant Jewish exiles, in their euphoria, now burst into an irresistibly rhythmic song of thanksgiving interrupted by a pensive passage for unaccompanied chorus that mourns the fall of a great city and illustrates the silence of its trumpeters and pipers. Soon the people, joined in joyful noise by the orchestra, begin again to sing their ecstatic praises aloud to the God of strength, syncopations and descending intervals depict Babylon’s destruction, and the fiery orchestra at last rips asunder the firmament of heaven, bringing the work to a crashing climax. Osbert Sitwell’s libretto originally concluded with a non-Biblical nursery rhyme: “How many miles to Babylon? Threescore miles and ten. Can I get there by candlelight? Yes, and back again.” Fortunately, according to Walton biographer Michael Kennedy, Walton “scuppered this literary conceit…and ended the work as he had intended, with a pagan shout of triumph.”

Lorelette Knowles