‘Tis the season for holiday-themed choral concerts, and the Cantata Singers of Ottawa were one of the first out of the gate Saturday night with an all-Benjamin Britten program at Christ Church Cathedral.
Britten wrote his Saint Nicolas Cantata specifically for amateur choir and orchestra; only the tenor soloist, percussionists and string principals need to be professional musicians, although for contemporary performances it’s become customary for choirs to hire all the instrumentalists. This was the case for the Cantata Singers, who were backed by a solid “pick-up” group of local pros (including a fine trio of fiery young percussionists). Joining the singers were the Boys’ and Girls’ Choirs of Christ Church Cathedral.
Director Andrew McAnerney comes out of the British boy’s choir tradition; his affection for this music is both deep and sincere. McAnerney’s conducting is lucid and sympathetic and the different character of each movement — representing various episodes and milestones from Saint Nicolas’ life — shone through in the choir’s response. The sections representing a violent, frightening storm at sea and Nicolas’ triumphant election as Bishop of Myrna were especially vivid.
The role of Saint Nicolas was admirably performed by tenor Nils Brown. Brown has a commanding, dark pewter voice, with an exceptionally rich and ringing middle register, masterful breath control and perfect diction. There was some dryness and congestion in the sound in the exposed, sustained high passages — the singer may have been fighting a cold, and he made judicious use of his expressive falsetto and mezza voce. But the part, with its almost operatic sweep, demands great interpretive as well as technical abilities, and Brown conveyed the Saint’s moments of vulnerability and bitter despair, his warmth and kindliness, and his religious ecstasy. With his tall stature, Brown even looked the part standing in the pulpit.
The four treble soloists were thoroughly prepared and sang well. Britten specified in the score that the youngest boy in the choir be given the part of the Saint as a child. This has been known to produce some unintentionally hilarious results, but tiny Justin Sidaros executed his solo very seriously and confidently.
The short first half of the evening featured four hymns written by the composer at various points in his career. Britten was just 16 when he composed his Hymn to the Virgin; it’s the simplest of the four pieces, and the choir did justice to its stained-glass beauty and feeling of frosty, medieval remoteness.
Organist Shawn Potter’s playing was a highlight of the short but dramatic Hymn of Saint Columba, from 1962, with the choir evoking the turbulence of both the crashing Irish Sea and the saint’s religious zeal.
The Hymn to Saint Peter, from 1955, was the strongest piece in the set, featuring a heightened sense of narrative and a lovely, clear Tu es Petrus solo line by scholarship chorister Gwyneth Bergman.
Bergman was also the main soloist in the Hymn to Saint Cecilia, which Britten completed in 1942. It’s the most famous of the four hymns, and by far the most difficult.
Unfortunately, its slippery modal harmonies and tricky intervals proved beyond the choir’s scope; the singing sounded tentative and scoopy throughout, with intonation so shaky that the piece ended a good semi-tone lower than where it had started, if not more.