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Calling Old St. Nick

November 20, 2007

Chora Nova, which celebrates its first anniversary this month, continued its quest to present rarely performed works with Saturday's "Homage to St. Nicholas" concert at the First Congregational Church of Berkeley. The program consisted of an early Haydn work, Missa Sancti Nicolai, and Benjamin Britten's cantata Saint Nicholas. Although billed as a concert to launch the holiday season, these pieces had little connection but name to Christmas traditions or to each other. Nevertheless, audience and performers enjoyed themselves, and the warm feeling of community generated by the performance made for a pleasant beginning for the approaching holidays.
The Haydn Mass, intended for Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, was written 20 years before his more well-known choral works of the 1790s, and on the heels of his famous "Farewell" Symphony, leading to speculation that the composer intended it as a "thank you" to his patron, who responded to the symphony by letting the musicians go home. From the first perfectly blended entrance of the solo quartet, an excellent sense of ensemble was evident: The performers really listened to each other. The small orchestra (two or three strings to a part, and pairs of winds) alternately supported and answered the large chorus, and, although Rita Lilly's pure, silvery voice, with its minimal vibrato, was extraordinary, the four soloists (two amateur, two professional) blended and balanced well, creating a feeling of connection that was to be felt throughout the concert.

The tempos were a bit stiff or even metronomic at times — the audience was caught unawares when the last movement ended with almost no ritardando — and seemed to be preprogrammed. One of the violinists who had not looked up at Conductor Paul Flight for several minutes suddenly raised her eyes, and lo, a fermata occurred one measure later. Little dynamic contrast was heard, but this may have been intentional, as the scoring for solo singers, chorus, and orchestra creates its own fortes and pianos. The group's preparation was note-perfect, its intonation superb, and its enunciation admirable.
Singing for the Love of It
Benjamin Britten's 1947 cantata Saint Nicolas is a modern-day story of the life of a fourth-century bishop who saved three young girls from being sold into prostitution by paying their dowries, gave the rest of his wealth to the poor, protected a ship from a storm through prayer, and restored to life three boys who had been slaughtered, pickled, and served in a stew. The scoring includes a children’s choir, which was drawn from the Piedmont Choirs, an East Bay after-school program that provides vocal music training for over 350 children ages six to 18. You wonder whether it is healthy for child singers, so necessary to the performance, to immerse themselves in this dark tale for the weeks or months necessary to learn and rehearse this piece. Nevertheless, Alexander Browne as the young Nicolas, five others who joined him in the onstage roles of "pickled boys," and the full 30-voice children's choir, although serious during the performance, seemed exuberantly unharmed afterwards.

The wooden tempos were evident again in the beginning of the cantata, but the men saved the day with their rollicking sailors chorus, after which things loosened up nicely. Before this number, the performance was technically correct in every way, but after, it became more spirited. Tenor Mark Mowry was a commanding Nicolas, bringing to life the ancient saint's characterizations of faith, hope, sadness, anger, and love.

Amateur choral societies (a tradition that dates back to the mid-19th century in Europe and even earlier here in America) are a wonderful thing. Ordinary people — bankers, gardeners, tech workers, and civil servants, among many others — spend much of their time, and sometimes their money, on setting aside the frenetic activity of the day to surrender themselves to music, in performances that last only an hour or two and are separated by many months.

This concentration on doing one single thing, perfectly, transfigures their faces during the performance, and makes them glow with a fierce inner light. Their seriousness of purpose enfolds the audience in their community. And when the time came for the audience to sing (Britten called for this in two of the numbers), most of the audience sang with a will. The bond was still evident in the lobby afterward, as family and friends gathered to congratulate all the performers.

Beverly Wilcox, a natural hornist, is a graduate student in music history at UC Davis.