When Bach Festival Chorus member Rick Van Enk heard that the chorus would be singing a requiem for those who died in the Soviet-induced famine in Ukraine in the 1930s, he thought of another piece of music that might go well on the same program.
He suggested “Belshazzar’s Feast” to the chorus’s conductor, Chris Ludwa, and Ludwa passed the suggestion on to Kalamazoo Philharmonia conductor Andrew Koehler, since the two groups would be performing together June 2.
“Belshazzar’s Feast” will open the concert. The piece, composed by William Walton with biblical text selected by Osbert Stillwell, is based on a story in which Belshazzar, the king of Babylon, uses the temple goblets of the Jews, who were then slaves in Babylon, to drink wine at a big banquet with his nobles, wives and concubines. During the banquet, the fingers of a human hand appear and write on the wall that God will bring Belshazzar’s reign to an end. Belshazzar is killed that night, and his kingdom is taken over by the Medes.
Musically, “Belshazzar’s Feast” is quite different from “Requiem for Those Who Died of Famine” but the themes are similar, say both Koehler and Van Enk. “The major connection is that these are both tales of historic injustices,” Koehler says. Both deal with power and powerlessness, with food being used as a tool of power — some are allowed to enjoy it while others are denied it, he says.
VanEnk sees resonances to contemporary events in both the requiem and “Belshazzar’s Feast.” Van Enk says he suggested “Belshazzar’s Feast,” “as a way to call attention to the precedent of a blasphemous national leader and what happened to him when he went too far.”
Van Enk says the concert as a whole “shows that choral music can have an important role in society beyond just aesthetics. The power of this music is in the social commentary.”
A portion of the concert proceeds will go to the Foods Resource Bank, which raises funds to support developing-world farm families and communities in growing their own food, earning incomes, and achieving sustainable food security.