Monday Night Update, 12/3: The Choir united with the Bel Canto Children’s Chorus for the first time for our last piano rehearsal on Britten’s St. Nicolas, before Friday’s orchestral dress rehearsal. These kids are fierce! Some of the singers are pictured above with their director, Dr. Joy Hirokawa, in the foreground. As I’ve mentioned, Britten’s parts for the children’s chorus are extremely demanding, and the Bel Canto singers are realizing them with total authority and panache. Having them in the rear gallery for the concerts will create a splendid textural effect.
Greg Funfgeld quipped that another piece of the puzzle is now in place, and their presence helped create an even more visceral sense of drama to the music. I think both choirs are inspiring one another, and this is one of the joys of collaborating with other groups (we can look forward to a similar esprit de corps when we’re joined by the singers from Millersville University for our spring performances of Mendelssohn’s epic oratorio, Elijah.). The deeper we delve into St. Nicolas, the more I’m convinced that it’s essentially an hour-long, unstaged opera. The music is so remarkably engaging, and Eric Crozier’s libretto becomes ever more evocative with each singing. Tonight, the thrill of the Pickled Boys movement was especially hair-raising. Britten and Crozier recount the legend of the three boys, slaughtered and preserved by a butcher during a time of great famine. The Choir becomes a kind of turba chorus, acting as the famished public. Their hunger-fueled mania leads them to extend a macabre invitation to Nicolas, to “eat some meat.” All the while, the children’s chorus interpolates from the rear gallery in the voice of the mothers of the children, who are grief-stricken. It’s eerie – they sing out of time from the orchestral ostinato that accompanies them, from the rear of the church. I won’t spoil the resolution of this troubling scene, but I will say that the moment has even jaded classical music critics reaching for the tissues. Tonight, with the children’s chorus present, we could sense a more complete picture of the drama (and we still have yet to add Benjamin Butterfield, our excellent tenor soloist who’s singing the role of Nicolas, to the mix). It’s riveting.
We also dug into the movement I mentioned in my conversation with Waldemar Vinovskis at WDIY, Nicolas’ journey to Palestine. The storm scene is full of high seas and high drama, written in a sea shanty style, and it was extremely exciting to bring that to life with the children’s chorus speaking as ethereal declaimers of the action from the rear gallery. These two movements illustrate the creative imagination of Britten, his ability to use disparate musical languages to convey the narrative with photo-realism. In the storm sequence, I hear the seeds of the Libera Me from his exceptional masterpiece, the War Requiem, especially in the piano and percussion parts. The British music critic, Michael White, writes of St. Nicolas:
St. Nicolas, it has to be said, is an odd piece. Loving it as I do, I wouldn’t change a note. But the eclectic juxtaposition of music-hall doggerel, baroque counterpoint, heldentenor solos, pristine English string writing, and a lilting, Faure-tribute section that always strikes me as the natural birthplace of John Rutter (I’m convinced it’s where those worryingly tuneful Christmas carols come from), is a real ragbag assortment…
…That it all somehow fits together in a work of cartoon-vivid indestructibility is bizarre. And that it also manages to be enchanting, loveable and moving – well, that’s genius for you.
The great English writer (and sometime Britten collaborator), E. M. Forster, wrote that the piece is “…one of those triumphs outside the rules of art,” and Imogen Holst remarked that “the crowning glory of the work came at the end, when the listeners were drawn into the singing of “God Moves In a Mysterious Way,” and the frozen hearts in the audience-congregation became unfrozen.” Those two remarks are first-hand testimonies of individuals at the world premiere at the inaugural Aldeburgh Festival, in 1948. St. Nicolas has weathered the intervening years exceptionally well, and I was cheered to see awareness of Britten’s music get a boost this past summer by its inclusion in Wes Anderson’s splendid film, Moonrise Kingdom. That film included music from the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Noye’s Fludde, and his masterful song collection for children, Friday Afternoons. At the end of his article in the fall issue of Bach Choir News, Greg Funfgeld quotes the last verse of the hymn that concludes the piece:
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
To my thinking, the cantata, itself, overflows with blessings for listeners and performers alike, and I’m quite excited to share this music with our audience. In the conversation I linked to above, I mentioned the elated bewilderment that shone forth from the audience the first time I sang this piece, during my college years. It’s hard to imagine the music’s impact as a first-time listener, but do come hear St. Nicolas. It’s an amazing ride.