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Preparing and conducting Belshazzar's Feast

I am considering staging Belshazzar's Feast with a college choir and community chorus.  In past years we have done some Twentieth-Century Repertoire, including Rutter's Gloria, Bernstein's Chichester Psalms, Adolphus Hailstork's I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes.  I find some echoes of Belshazzar's Feast in the Rutter Gloria but the score is daunting regarding orchestra.  I have heard it performed and I believe my singers can handle it but I wonder what kind of investment of time and resources will be required for the orchestra.  My University does not have a full orchestra program so we have to hire a good number of players for all performances.  The largest orchestras we have contracted were for Elijah and the Brahms Requiem.  For most of the orchestra members these were fairly familiar works and we were able to stage our performances with just two full orchestra rehearsals, even thought they are longer works.
Belshazzar is shorter but absolutely a challenging and "athletic" piece for singers and orchestra.  It will also be less familiar for orchestra and completely new to all my singers.  If you have conducted the work, can you give me some insight into the minimum orchestra required to make it work and the number of hours you think would be required with a mix of students, faculty, and Union contract musicians.  I would love to do this piece and if it appears that I can afford the orchestra and manage the time required I am ready to take the plunge.
Also, does anyone know what it costs to rent the orchestra parts?
Grace and peace,
Larry Smith
Missouri Baptist University
St. Louis MO 63141
Replies (6): Threaded | Chronological
on April 2, 2014 2:36am
Hi Larry
I have comnducted this piece three times: University of Kansas (much helped by the marching band program because of the brass requirements!), Oklahoma Baptist University, and Harvard-Radcliffe Chorus in Cambridge Mass.
You don't need the offstage Brass bands although they are fun but the scoring is substantial nonetheless so you should investigate the costs of this carefully. There is a cut you can make in extremis - I can give you that when i get back to my library in France next week if you like. At KU we did it complete with all student forces if that gives you an idea of what can be achieved. However the music school there is big with, I imagine, more resruces available perhaps.
it is a fabulous piece of course and well worth the effort!
In haste today
Simon Carrington
Simon Carrington
April – November                 November - March
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46240 Lamothe Cassel             London SW4 9BX
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March 1, 2014                       Masterclasses in Shrewsbury for the Sam Baker Trust           UK
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March 23-30                         UNC, Bach St Matthew Passion, Guest Conductor, CO        USA
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May 17-19                            Honorary Doctorate, New England Conservatory, Boston     USA
May 28- June 6                    Yale Schola Cantorum, Rome, Bologna Venice & Milan        Italy
June 29-July 5                      Westminster Conducting Institute, Princeton, NJ                    USA
July 26- August 2                 Sarteano Chamber Choir & Conducting Workshop                Italy
August 10-16                        Yale-Norfolk Chamber Choir Fesitval & Conducting Insitute USA
October 20-30                       ACDA Michigan, Master Classes and Guest Conducting       USA
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December 1-12   }                Yale Schola Cantorum, Guest Conducting                               USA
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Yale University Emeritus Professor of Choral Conducting,
Founder & Conductor of Yale Schola Cantorum 
on April 2, 2014 10:57am
The orchestra is very loud, to the point I've seen union stewards in two unrelated productions bring grievances forward. Expect complaints and make sure to put earplugs and noise shields in your budget. Your concert hall has to be large enough so you force your singers to stand right next to the brass. They're students, so they won't complain, but hearing damage is a real concern.
As an alternative, I would recommend Vaughan Williams's "Dona Nobis Pacem." It's about the same length, rental cost, and orchestra size
Shorter is Walton's "Coronation Te Deum," which could be combined with any number of 20th century works.
on April 2, 2014 1:43pm
Thank you Simon and Thomas.  We have a 965-seat house but not a particularly large stage, especially when the acoustic shell is installed.  We did have plenty of space for Elijah and the German Requiem and we used larger seated risers for those concert.  For Belshazzar we would most likely use the Wenger concertmaster risers because the work is not so long that the singers would need to sit, and frankly there are few moments when they are not performing.
Could the Offstage brass ensembles be placed in our balcony rather than in the wings of the stage?  We have used that space for antiphonal singing and instruments in the past and it might take some of the pressure off the sound on the stage.  I have not looked at the full score yet, but judging from the orchestra list in the Piano/Vocal score there are 14 woodwinds, 8 onstage brass, 4 timpani, 2 harps, 4 percussion players, piano (is this essential) and organ (is this essential) and strings.  Judging fromyour experience, how many strings do you need to properly balance the large wind and onstage brass sections?  We have a few players for the woodwing and brass from among our faculty, students, and staff but some of those parts and almost all of the string parts will be likely hired players.  Fortunately, here in St. Louis, we have a favorable contract with the Musicians' Union and have an excellent working relationship with them so we have access to many fine players.
We are concerned about noise levels but with the use of standing rather than seated risers we can move the singers back further on the stage to isolate them a bit from the brass, and if we can position the brass bands in the balcony (still left and right) we might cut down on some of that issue.
Can either of you tell me the rental cost of the orchestration?  I have not rented from OUP in a long time and nothing of this size.
Simon, I would appreciate any information you can provide.  I am also interested in perhaps having some dancers provide some interpretation of the Feast scene rehearsal 15 through to the recit before rehearsal 52.  They would likely dance more in the aisles than on stage but we have some options for putting in some staging over some of the front rows of chairs if needed.
Dona Nobis Pacem has been mentioned to me several times and I am looking at that, but Belshazzar is such an exceptionally dramatic work I would like to explore all options before passing on it.
Grace and peace,
Larry Smith
on April 3, 2014 3:06am
hi Larry, the cost of rental will decide on a number of factors (how long you want the parts etc). If you contact CF Peters, who are OUP's rental agents in the US, they can give you a quote: CF Peters Rentals (
Grsielda (OUP)
on April 3, 2014 5:23am
Hi Larry,
I was in attendance at last month's ACDA Southern Conference closing concert at Jacoby Hall in Jacksonville when Simon Halsey conducted the Collegiate Combined Chorus & the Jacksonville Symphont Orchestra in "Belshazzar's Feast." He had the orchestra on stage, surrounded by the choruses in the balconies around the stage (behind & left/right). He also had instrumental ensembles in the balconies to the sides & rear of the audience. The effect was to completely surround and envelope the audience in sound, and it was successful. Perhaps you can obtain the DVD of this performance from someone at Southern ACDA.


on April 7, 2014 7:21am
Thank you, Rich.  We only have a rear balcony, probably space enough for the two brass bands on each side.  I have considered "spreading things around".  That would take some creativity in our theatre, but we could build out from the front of the stage a bit and maybe some on the sides but because the seating area is raked it will take some work to figure out where and how to set up some staging.  I will seek out the recording of the Southern Division performance.  What a great choice for this work - it would seem to be a natural for honor choirs like that.
Larry Smith
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