An orchestra of nearly one hundred musicians plus a chorus of six dozen singers packed a reconfigured stage in one of the most grandiose, if not grandiloquent concerts to grace the stage of the Stevens Center in recent years. Two works were on the Winston-Salem Symphony‘s program: Gustav Holst’s popular The Planets, a self descriptive work for very large orchestra and invisible back-stage treble choir, and after intermission, William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast for standard-sized orchestra supplemented by a pair of stage-bands, chorus, and narrator, bass-baritone Jason McKinney.

A large audience filled the Stevens Center for the opening Saturday night performance directed by Michelle Merrill, an American-born conductor of impressive stature and qualifications, the sixth and final candidate to be selected as a finalist for the position of Music Director of the Winston-Salem Symphony. Merrill conducted one of the best-rehearsed concerts of the season, if the precise and clean playing of this difficult program was any indication. The only imbalance was the grossly over-amplified sound level of the chorus – which, in this critic’s opinion, probably should not have been amplified at all (although this places extra burdens on the large orchestra to not cover the chorus). The use of super-titles made the understanding of the text easier in either case.

Audiences will find the origins of many soundtracks for space-based films and TV series in the score of The Planets, which Holst published in 1921. Pluto had not yet been discovered, and Earth was probably considered too common or too complex to be included in this musical catalog – which describes better the personalities of the antique gods and goddesses after whom the planets were named than any actual attributes of the planets themselves: hence, Mars is war-like, Jupiter is jovial, Mercury like quick-silver, etc. Special kudos to the woodwinds (especially the double reed families) for crisp and clean passages in Mercury, Saturn and Uranus!

Belshazzar’s Feast is based on the prophesy in the Book of Daniel, referring to the kingdom of Babylon having been counted, weighed and parcelled out – predicting the end of Belshazzar’s reign, and foretelling that arrogance and hubris lead to destruction. The role of the bass-baritone, admirably sung by McKinney in his deep natural-sounding voice, is that of narrator. The chorus was especially effective in the short one-syllabic dramatic commands ripping with meaning: “Slay!” Merrill was clearly in charge of the show throughout the half-hour masterpiece by Walton, one of Great Britain’s most popular composers.

The concert repeats today, Sunday, May 21 at 3PM in the Stevens Center. See sideboard for details.

The Stevens Center will close November 15, 2023 for renovations and will reopen in 2025; most concerts during the interim will be performed at Reynolds Auditorium, on the Reynolds High School campus.