Cantata Singers open season with a gift of Britten’s Saint Nicolas

Montreal tenor Nils Brown sang the role of Saint Nicolas in Cantata Singers season opening concert on Nov. 23.

This weekend Ottawa’s Cantata Singers will open their 56th season with a performance of a cantata by Benjamin Britten, along with other works by the British composer.

The centrepiece of the concert is the Saint Nicolas cantata which premiered in 1948 to mark the 100th anniversary of the British school Lancing College. Britten’s life partner, the tenor Peter Pears, went to the school.

Interestingly, this cantata has a place in the history of the Ottawa choir. In 1976, the Cantata Singers performed the work in Montreal at the Notre Dame Basilica. That must have been quite an event. 

The original Saint Nicholas is a 4th century bishop from what is Turkey today.

But before a second show in Ottawa, Pears received news that Britten was dying and he returned to Britain without performing the piece in the capital. Britten died soon after.

It makes for a good story certainly.

Now, led by music director Andrew McAnerney, the choir will try again, this time with the Montreal based tenor Nils Brown taking Pears’ place. Singing along will also be the boys and girls choirs from Christ Church Cathedral (directed by James Calkin), organist, Shawn Potter, the Ottawa Youth Orchestra Academy and a small professional orchestra (strings, two pianos and percussion) led by Brigitte Amyot.

The work is about the life of Saint Nicolas, a fourth century Greek bishop and the model for Santa Claus. The bishop is said to have been noted for secret gift-giving. He is also the patron saint of — among others — children. It dramatizes incidents in the Nicolas’s life including miracles such as bringing backed to life three boys who had been pickled.

Not only did the work honour the college, it was the first work performed at the Aldeburgh Festival which was founded by Britten and Pears.

That’s a place where Nils Brown studied. He attended the Britten Pears School in Aldeburgh.

Even though Brown was born in Australia he came to Canada as a two year old and the family settled in Kingston.

He’s sung in this cantata with Cantata in the past as the young Nicolas which is a honour given to a young lad. Brown was eight years old. And this year, the stars have aligned and have him singing the role of the adult Saint in Halifax as well with the King’s College chorus led by Nick Halley, with Paul Halley on the organ on the saint’s day Dec. 6.

“I’m really looking at this piece in depth,” he said, as one does when one is portraying a saint and Santa by “putting my shoulder to the wheel.”

“I heard Peter Pears performing once in Kingston in a recital. And I went to the Britten Pears school in the U.K. so I spent a lot of time in Aldeburgh and at Snape Maltings.

He learned his English tenor technique there and in other locales including the choir of St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle when he was 12 and on a scholarship. But Brown doesn’t like to be put solely in that box. After all he studied with the legendary Louis Quilico who encouraged the Italian fire in his voice. He feels he leans that way in his performances.

“I can put those two worlds together, I believe,” he added.

That flexibility has him performing in all kinds of situations. He plays guitar and sings in an old time country band and dabbled in Neapolitan music in a trio and even pursued some Scottish music. But perhaps the most unusual gig would be appearing on the soundtracks of Assassins Creed video games. His audience there almost certainly is his biggest. But his regular gig is with the Studio de Musique Ancienne de Montreal where McAnerney is the music director, who, Brown says, does incline to injecting some of that passion in the ensemble’s presentation. 

McAnerney and Brown do go back in their work together in the Studio. But even before that, they were both in the St. George’s choir, although Brown didn’t know McAnerney at the time.

The role in Saint Nicolas is “delightful. It’s the incarnation of a person from Asia Minor (today’s Turkey) the early fourth century.” The music begins with a hint of that part of the world, Brown said.

“There is a conjuring of this kind of superhero from long ago. And you are in his presence for the duration.”

The role has come around infrequently for Brown over the years. But, of course, the saint “is the only one who visits the world every year in the form of Santa Claus,” Brown said. Nicolas was actually quite a tough guy with a soft heart for children. He rescued three boys who had been killed and salted down by an innkeeper during a famine. And Nicolas is said to have reanimated the boys saving them from being served as a main course on the supper menu. Nicolas also apparently rescued three young girls from being sold as slaves by throwing gold down the chimney of the place where they were being kept.

Brown has a fondness for the piece because of his love of music offers a story that is “of service to people. This was written for the 100th anniversary of a school that was a true community event (in 1948).” It can feature amateurs, Brown said, as the Ottawa performance does with the Youth Orchestra Academy ensemble and the cathedral choirs. The audience is also asked to participate and sing some hymns.

“It really is a coming together of the community and that makes this a very potent piece of music.” This certainly sounds like a good reason for a get-together.

Cantata Singers present Benjamin Britten’s Saint Nicholas
Featuring Nils Brown
Where: Christ Church Cathedral
When: Nov. 23 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

Share Post
Written by

Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.