Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra "Classical Christmas"
Scottish Rite Cathedral
London-born Raymond Leppard, a recently naturalized U.S. citizen, may presently feel more kinship with Britten - a Briton - than with "Britain." Generally acknowledged as Great Britain's finest 20th century composer, Lord Benjamin Britten dominated the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's annual "Classical Christmas" program last Saturday in the Scottish Rite's lovely Ballroom. His Saint Nicolas, A Cantata for Tenor, Mixed Chorus, Strings, Piano Duet, Percussion and Organ, Op. 42 (1948), comprised the program's second half.
Leppard, our ISO conductor laureate who launched this unique, once-a-year salute to lesser-known Christmas fare in 1998, unified these diverse vocal and instrumental ensembles into a sterling, first-rate presentation. Excellence inscribes the work of guest tenor John Aler; the ISO strings, percussion, organ and piano; the IU based, 25-singer Apollo's Voice chamber chorus; and, last but far from least, the Indianapolis Children's Choir under Henry Leck - located on the mezzanine directly above Apollo's Voice. Leck's achievements from kids of all walks of Indianapolis life continue to astonish.
Leppard points out that our "Santa Claus" actually derives from a historical figure whose English equivalent name, St. Nicolas, refers to a ninth century persona. With a text by Eric Crozier, Britten chronicles Nicolas' life in verse and music. Using traditional harmonies with modern twists, Britten captivates with a wide-ranging palette of colors.
For example, in "The Birth of Nicolas," he features a boy soprano with instruments only, in a lilting, waltz-like refrain. Aler, occasionally sounding a bit forced in his lowest registers, otherwise sang with fervor in "Nicolas Devotes Himself to God." Then it was Apollo's Voice and the orchestra in "He Journeys to Palestine." The Children's Choir finally insinuated itself with "Lightning hisses through the night" - as exalted in sound as was their physical location.
The nine-part cantata ends with "The Death of Nicolas," the Children's Choir having departed, leaving Aler, Apollo's Voice and the players to allow the saint to be "received unto Christ." Leppard incorporated two unnecessary audience sing-along hymns: "All the People" - to the tune of the Protestant Doxology - and, as the finale, "God Moves in a Mysterious Way" to a lesser-known melody which few in the audience sang. Though these added nothing to the presentation, they also took little away from it and could be easily tolerated with what Leppard otherwise had wrought.
This "Classical Christmas" began with Handel's Concerto Grosso in G, Op. 6, No. 1. Though not one of the German/English Baroque master's better efforts in the genre, Leppard more than compensated by having his strings and organ continuo play it so precisely as to deliver a fully engaging sense of style.
To complete the English connection to the Nativity, Leppard followed the Handel with Dies Natalis, Op. 8, a song cycle for tenor and string orchestra, by also-London-born Gerald Finzi (1901-1956). A work begun in the mid-1920s, Finzi completed it in 1939, a setting of verses by 17th century poet Thomas Traherne on the projected perceptions of a boy on his "day of birth" (dies natalis). Finzi's accessible musical style has forged a devoted following, though he's not well-known on this side of the Atlantic. Perhaps being more in the open, Aler's delivery was somewhat more uneven, showing occasional wobbliness and lower register constriction. The ISO strings, however, continued their high standard of excellence.