St. Nicholas of Myra, fourth-century bishop, led an eventful legendary life: a rich man who distributed his wealth to the poor, tossed bags of money through windows to help keep dowry-less girls from lives of prostitution, and resurrected three murdered boys who were victims of a proto-Sweeney Todd. His posthumous career as a saint has been equally strenuous: patron saint of anglers, merchants, penitent thieves, pawnbrokers, several countries, and of course children, through which he has evolved into Santa Claus. His feast day is December 6, but the Masterworks Chorale has gotten an early start on the season by presenting a program of mostly British works in his honor, on Sunday November 8 in Sanders Theater in Cambridge, though mercifully none of these works had to do with Father Christmas.
The program’s first half comprised three mostly short works: conductor Steven Karidoyanes’s anthem “Nicholas, Holy Hierarch,” written about ten years ago to American-accented translations of Greek hymns by the Greek Orthodox monks at New Skete Monastery in Cambridge, New York. The setting did not strike this listener as particularly American-accented, but it was mellifluous, prosodically apt. Next up was a very brief a cappella “Apolytikion for Saint Nicholas” by Sir John Tavener, the most notable of the British “mystical minimalists” who have grafted themselves to the religious and musical traditions of the Orthodox Church. An apolytikion is a dismissal anthem, particularized to the subject of the service, recapitulating its principal points; thus, Tavener’s text limns a few salient themes about the saint. His setting begins with a high drone for women against a continuous melody beginning in unison and ending in a shimmering, rich harmonization.
The first half ended with a rare US performance —this was the North American premiere of this piece, written just this year —of an a cappella work by Ivan Moody, a pupil of Tavener’s and like him a convert to Orthodoxy. The “Hymn to Saint Nicholas” was written for the KotorArt Festival in Kotor, Montenegro, this past August in honor of the St. Nicholas Church there. The text is from two Orthodox hymns, one in Church Slavonic and another in Greek. Moody’s harmony is, despite its tonal underpinnings, spikier than Tavener’s; the music alternates pulsing, flowing verses with a repeated refrain on the Slavonic word for “rejoice,” in brilliant vocal coloration. At times, the writing builds an almost Ligeti-like density of polyphonic strands, and demonstrates a great gift for choral writing —most of Moody’s output, it appears from his web site, is choral. Owing to a snafu at the work’s first performance, the composer never obtained a recording of it. Thus, Karidoyanes obliged at this performance, necessitating a second take of the final section, a lagniappe for the audience as well as a boon to the composer. David Potts, tenor, provided a brief but admirable solo turn.
The main course at this particular feast of St. Nicholas was the dramatic cantata “Saint Nicolas” (note the spelling), a 1948 work by Benjamin Britten for tenor solo, adult and children’s choirs, organ and orchestra of strings, four-hand piano and percussion. It was commissioned by Lancing College in Sussex, of which Britten’s partner Peter Pears was an alumnus, and sets a text by Eric Crozier, who had supplied Britten with several libretti. The work is in nine sections comprising an introduction and eight vignettes from the life of Nicholas, from cradle to grave. The tenor soloist personifies Nicholas, while the chorus variously acts as narrator, other characters, and as spokespeople for the contemporary audience/congregation. Britten’s idiom here is at his most demotic, while maintaining his characteristic turns of phrase and harmony, all as befits a work meant to combine professional and amateur performers–not excluding the audience, who sing two familiar hymns (well, familiar to Anglicans at any rate) at crucial points. Most of the movements consist of Britten’s patented melodic recitative writing, with the notable exception of the grisly tale of the “pickled boys,” which is menacingly, drivingly strophic until Nicholas saves the day.
Throughout the concert, Karidoyanes led his forces with precision and panache. He has shown himself an effective and elegant leader of massed voices, eliciting tight phrasing and pellucid diction. Great credit is also due to Valerie Becker and her Treble Chorus of New England, who well negotiated Britten’s sometimes tricky rhythms and idiosyncratic melismas. Young soloists Nathan Goldthwaite, as the young Nicholas, and Graham Cook,, Francesca Lionetta and Alexander Mezdorian as the resurrected boys, were perfectly on top of their parts, and winsome as all get-out. Matthew Anderson had a clear, pure tone and impeccable diction, and a commanding dramatic presence as Nicholas. The orchestral forces, all top-flight Boston freelancers, were also in fine voice and responsive to the music and Karidoyanes’s lead.