Benjamin Britten was a true believer in the democratic role of music in society. As such, he thought it every citizen, and especially every child’s right to learn and be involved in musical performance.
To promote his ideas, he devised a number of projects aimed at involving amateurs in the community with professional musicians. Noyes Fludde, written in 1958 when Britten was an accepted pillar of the establishment, is probably the most famous of these, but Britten aficionados have a higher regard for St Nicolas, written after the post-war triumph of Peter Grimes, but at a time when the pacifist composer who had conveniently recused himself abroad during hostilities was still held in suspicion by some.
Contrary to the chirpy populism of Noyes Fludde, the protagonist of St Nicolas is a more complex figure, questioning the direction of humanity and his own place therein. A neat piece of programming then by Australian music education’s Provocateur-in-Chief Richard Gill, and a welcome chance to hear and see a fascinating work that is still a surprising rarity in our concert halls.
As it happens, Gill has had to withdraw from conducting engagements until the end of the year – he will be back, he assures us – so Sydney Chamber Choir were blessed to have engaged the services of Brett Weymark for the afternoon, a choral conductor par excellence who admits to having had his own Road to Damascus after singing the tenor solo in a performance of St Nicolas in this very hall at the tender age of 19. That experience led him to commit to a musical career, and the special place the work has in his heart was evident from the lovingly crafted interpretation that formed the second half of this concert.
The first half comprised four short choral works, three on Marian themes, the other a slightly shoehorned Bach motet. The opener was a raptly finessed reading of Hildegard of Bingen’s Ave, Generosa, spun over a building drone on strings and chamber organ. Simple but effective, soloists and a violinist sang from one end of the hall, the SCC women’s voices from the other. Hassler’s brief four-part Dixit Maria was delivered with a gentle warmth, while the concluding Magnificat, attributed to Buxtehude, pitted an excellent quartet of soloists – Josie Ryan and Jenny Ward particularly impressive – against the rest of the choir. A straightforward and attractive work, accompanied by a stylish and vigorous string quintet with chamber organ, the singers were on terrific form culminating in a full-throated and jubilant Gloria. Only the Bach – his motet Fürchte Dich Nicht – disappointed, the divided choir occasionally challenged by the awkward contrapuntal complexities and struggling to keep pitch in some of the tricky chromatic phrases. Singing above mezzo forte, matters improved with discipline and diction – two of SCC’s watchwords – notably to the fore.
No complaints about the Britten, though. Written for adult choir, children’s choir and tenor soloist – originally Britten’s life partner Peter Pears – and accompanied by string orchestra, piano four-hands, percussion ensemble, continuo chamber organ and full organ to accompany the two hymns that call for audience participation, it’s a complex beast, but one that Weymark mastered from the word go. The orchestra was led with skill and dash by Anna McMichael and the combined SCC, NSW Public Schools Senior Singers and Santa Sabina Chamber Choir responded with a big, beefy sound, tight ensemble work and exceptional diction. Indeed, the younger singers – a few boys but the majority of them girls – sang with great confidence throughout and gave every indication of loving every minute of it all.
Performing the role of Nicolas himself was Richard Butler, a singer with a proper old-school English tenor sound and particularly eloquent in the higher, quieter passages of which there are many, a tribute by the composer to the very particular vocal foibles of Peter Pears. A little more singing off-the-book might have helped put across more of the conflicted character of the often troubled saint, but what he lacked in manner he made up for by acting though voice, the beautifully shaded prayer at sea one of many highlights.
Among a host of imaginative touches, placing sets of singers in different locations around the hall leant aural variety and added drama to the affair. The ship’s journey and storm at sea with piano underpin and dazzling percussive effects – outstanding work from NSW Public Schools Percussion Ensemble – saw the desperate crew singing magically from the back of the hall. Nicolas’s investiture as Bishop of Myra with singers flanking the aisles produced a wonderful surround sound effect with five groups of singers interweaving, before we were all on our feet to join in a spirited rendition of The Old Hundredth.
Other highlights included a moving choir of women pleading for the return of their sons only to find out they have been butchered and preserved in vinegar. Nicolas’s resuscitation of the three lads is Britten at his most uplifting, the three pickled boys’ “Alleluias” simple yet affecting. The charming waltz to which Britten dashes off a whole string of the Bishop of Myra’s works, deeds and miracles was gracefully done before Butler rendered Nicolas’s final prayer over the chorus’s touchingly realised singing of the Nunc Dimitis.
Of course, with the audience on its feet to join in the final hymn, a standing ovation was somewhat assured, though I doubt anyone would have begrudged it to Weymark and his sterling forces after such a committed and involving performance. Let’s hope for more dramatised choral music from this company soon.