Kansas City Chorale performs Britten’s “Saint Nicolas”

Kansas City Chorale, dressed in black, with Christmas trees behind them.

The Kansas City Chorale, performing at Atonement Lutheran Church. Courtesy of the Kansas City Chorale.

Midway through December, the ubiquity of Christmas songs can start to grate on one’s nerves. But, along with all that is holly and jolly, you can rely on the Kansas City Chorale to share a nuanced selection of seasonal work that bring a different perspective to the season.

This year, they choose to celebrate Saint Nicolas, Bishop of Myra in the 4th century, whose legendary generosity and various attributed miracles recommended him for sainthood. With the passage of time, his persona was elided with various other legends, which evolved into the veritable demigod status of Santa Claus. 

Though the performance opened with two delightfully old-fashioned carols (the group processing in on Alfred Burt’s “Caroling, Caroling,” followed by his “We’ll Dress This House”), it centered on Benjamin Britten’s cantata “Saint Nicolas,” with text by Eric Crozier (who pens lovely lines like “the foolish toy of time, the darling of decay” or “abaft, aback, astern, abeam”). It’s a dramatic work, “loosely-based” on real events. Britten takes Crozier’s words and weaves an inspired, anguished, tumultuous, taut 50-minute work, made all the more impressive by the fact it was written for a mix of professional and amateur musicians, with Britten’s partner, tenor Peter Pears, in the solo role. 

The concert Friday evening at Atonement Lutheran Church in Overland Park was their sixth concert of the month, and the second presentation of this work. Tenor Daniel Hansen performed the role of Saint Nicolas, standing on a platform for visual and aural effect, to aid in carrying across the chorus, organ, piano, and percussion. He gave a solid performance, only briefly betraying their strenuous schedule, and sang with tone not unlike Pears’. 

Tenor soloist Daniel Hansen performs the role of Saint Nicolas. Courtesy of Kansas City Chorale.

The chorale was joined by ten members of the Lawrence Children’s Choir, with Ash Wagner sweetly-voicing the “Young Nicolas” solo line. There are quite a few challenging bits for these young singers, and they gave a lovely, professional-level performance, prepared by Gabe Lewis-O’Connor. 

The vocalists performed with Kurt Knect (piano), Edward Poston (organ), and Steve Riley and Kurt Gartner (percussion). Britten uses the instrumentalists for many effects, from the thunder of the sea to the sorrowful drone of organ at Nicolas’ death. There were moments that didn’t lock together completely, but were generally effective. 

Knect was especially impressive, serving in every practical sense as the orchestra, from the opening melody (written for violin solo) to the fanfares of trumpets, roiling basses, and the complex layers as the chorus lists Nicholas’ “marvelous works.”  He also started the show with a medley of familiar carols while the audience found their seats. 

Britten’s work covers vast emotional range and technical skill, and the chorus served the music faithfully, giving it a high-powered performance. After the “Amen” of one section, an audience member whispered a stunned “wow.” 

The work also includes a particular miracle that doesn’t make it into many cheery Christmas stories: Nicolas and the Pickled Boys. Like the story of the little match girl, it’s a reminder that not all children are safe, just because it is Christmas. Hansen gave Nicolas’ lines a demanding urgency and the children’s choir gave a stirring “Alleluia.” 

After that hefty work, the chorale offered a few more songs, the “fudge and mints” of the program, Bruffy joked, with “Ding Dong Merrily on High” arranged by Howard Helvey, and “Jingle Bells,” arranged by Gordon Lightfoot, both with demanding onomatopoeia. The fact that the chorus performed masked made their diction and cohesion all the more impressive. 

For encore, the ensemble performed “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel,” arranged by ensemble member Ed Frazier Davis. The chorus drew closer together for this final work. The music, too, had a closeness, an intimacy that invoked a sort of shadowed safety. The arrangement was gorgeous, the lines subtly shifting, yet steady, as though vocalized candlelight. After the drama, after the joviality, it was an ideal mood shift and send off, a moment of meditation and a fitting end to their holiday concert series.

Reviewed Friday, December 17, 2021. For more information visit kcchorale.org. 

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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