William Walton’s classic oratorio Belshazzar’s Feast is a monument in the British musical canon and a perfect example of the British fascination with large-scale choral music. Feast is a synthesis of massive orchestral composition (the work calls for double brass) and towering choral forces. Though not quite a cast of thousands, the sheer number of forces and musicians present makes staging the music logistically difficult but also a worthwhile musical experience.

Conventional wisdom said that our own Quad City Symphony Orchestra (QCSO) might have bitten more than it could chew when it announced last spring that Belshazzar’s Feast would be the closer for the 2002-3 season. But as is often the case, Maestro Donald Schleicher and his musicians proved they can handle demanding music with brilliant aplomb. The April 6 Centennial Hall concert was a potent, well-played, and well-sung conclusion to the concert season.

Even though the focus of the afternoon’s concert was Walton’s oratorio, the first half featured delightful music by Dvorak and Gabrielli. Capitalizing on the extra brass needed for Belshazzar’s Feast, Schleicher programmed Gabrielli’s short but enchanting Canzona per sonare No. 2. Inspired by Venice’s San Marco cathedral, Gabrielli composed music using the antiphonal opportunities presented by church balconies and spacing realities. The result is a sound and effect that comes at you from all angles. Though not San Marco, the creative stage arrangement at the Centennial Hall concert attempted to re-create the sound that one might experience in San Marco.

Following the all brass Canzona, the string section performed the youthful Serenade for Strings written by the still-emerging Antonin Dvorak. Alone, the strings were joyful and pristine. Dvorak took only 12 days to compose, and the music exudes youth and freedom. It was a perfect piece for spring in spite of the unusually chilly concert day.

The first half was certainly well-played, yet there was palpable anticipation for the main event; the crowd knew the real indulgence existed on the other end of the intermission. After nestling back into my chair, nothing could have prepared me for the sight of watching almost 300 people assume their positions on the Centennial Hall stage and the ensuing rapturous music.

Listening to Belshazzar’s Feast on CD is hardly the way to experience it. The enormity of the music and the sound is distilled by digital coding and speaker limitations. The QCSO and John Hurty’s assorted choruses stand capably among the best that have recorded Walton’s oratorio.

Schleicher extracted a precise balance from the orchestra. At no point did the orchestra’s exuberant playing diminish the chorus or baritone soloist Brian Montgomery. The QCSO was at its best during the Praise Ye.

Credit goes to Montgomery for giving a towering performance that reached above the assembled forces. For me, his effort reached a chilling, goose-bump-inducing apex when he recited: Mene, Mene, Tekel Upharsin. Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting.

Yet it was the assorted choruses that might have had the most difficult task and performed the best. The demands placed on the chorus shattered traditional notions about choral music, with ever-changing music, differing deployments, and a variety of moods. Hurty’s choruses never waned, never losing their power or their way. Robust from beginning to end, they were an equal force to the massive orchestral elements under Schleicher’s control.

The season finale was a suitable end to a series of concerts that featured traditional favorites and new music. It was also an appropriate close to a season that featured noteworthy performances of music that isn’t necessarily standard fare. Luckily, with Schleicher’s contract extension, lovers of classical-music and those who are just curious will have the chance to hear Schleicher and the QCSO ply their trade for a few more years.

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