Britten-Fest: St. Nicolas at Trinity Cathedral
By J.D. Goddard
Santa Claus made an early appearance in Cleveland on Friday evening, November 18, as part of Trinity Cathedral's Britten-Fest, as Todd Wilson, organist and director of music, conducted the Trinity Cathedral Choir and Trinity Chamber Orchestra in Benjamin Britten’s cantata Saint Nicolas, op. 42. Britten wrote his “dramatic cantata in nine scenes depicting the life of Saint Nicolas, his faith, his miracles and his enduring legacy” on a text by Eric Crozier using Haydn's Creation as a model. The Cantata premiered in 1948.
This was his first major work intended for performance by amateurs. Britten wrote: “I want to write for people…There is something very fresh and unrestrained in the quality of the music produced by amateurs.”
J.R. Fralick, professor of voice at Baldwin-Wallace, sang the part of the adult Nicolas and demonstrated a profound understanding of Britten’s style. His touching yet dramatic interpretation of the text made for an excellent portrayal of his character, never pushing and always aware of the story line and pathos of its serious yet childlike intent. His is an absolutely perfect voice for Britten's music. He easily traversed the vocal demands of the intervallic dissonances and smoothly transitioned from phrase to phrase with the grace, poise and dignity that Britten demands.
The Trinity Cathedral Choir and the sopranos and altos from the Lakewood High School Choir (Dr. Lisa Hanson, Director) completed the ensemble, antiphonally positioned in the church sanctuary. The choirs took on various contrasting characters throughout the drama, relating Saint Nicolas’ adventures, tying the story together with choral narratives, prayers and praise. Ben Wilson sang the roll of Nicolas as a Boy and Meeve Billings, Joshua McElliott and Ben Wilson sang the roles of the “Three Pickled Boys.” Good job, young men!
The Trinity Cathedral Choir sang with an admirable awareness of the text and graphically painted each scene with the vocal color appropriate for the drama of the moment. This was especially notable in the fourth scene as the men boisterously sang their cries for help amidst the storm. In the second scene the women of the chorus delightfully imitated the joyful excitement of school children as they sang “His glory spread a rainbow round the countryside. Nicolas will be a Saint! the neighbors cried.” It is this quality of youthful playfulness contrasted with a profound seriousness that makes Saint Nicolas such a unique work.
A gracious audience was in attendance and congenially joined in with the sacred yet hearty enthusiasm of the evening’s performance, singing with the chorus at two specified moments in the score. Wilson challenged the audience to sing their designated hymn parts loudly, and sing loudly they did:“God moves in a mysterious way. His wonders to perform.”
It was a fitting end to a very interesting and demanding evening’s worth of Benjamin Britten. Todd Wilson kept things moving and the musicians in the orchestra were attentive and responsive to Britten’s demanding metric twists along with his subtle dramatic requirements.
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Published on ClevelandClassical.com November 22, 2011.
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