Scottish Rite Cathedral, Dec. 12

Franz Joseph Haydn and Benjamin Britten both have British connections. And they both set to music words dedicated to St. Nicholas (207-347 A.D.) a.k.a. Santa Claus. But Haydn reached the summit of his art when nearly in his dotage, 1790 to 1800, whereas Britten's standard of excellence remained more of a constant throughout his career. Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra conductor laureate Raymond Leppard used the saint as the theme for his 12th Classical Christmas, held once again in the Scottish Rite Ballroom, and once again using IU's Apollo's Voice, along with Cantantes Angeli of Henry Leck's celebrated Indianapolis Children's Choir. Haydn's "St. Nicholas" Mass in G (1772) initiated the program, featuring four vocal soloists, Apollo's Voice and a chamber sized group of ISO players borrowed from their ongoing "Yuletide Celebration," a few blocks away. With soprano Carmina Castells tending to dominate her three colleagues, the remaining forces delivered a polished account of this light-veined setting of the Catholic Ordinary. The musical meat of this St. Nick homage belonged to Britten's lovely cantata, St. Nicolas, Op. 42 (1948). Cast in nine parts chronicling the sanctified bishop's life, its vocal standout was tenor Barry Banks, along with Apollo, the players with added percussion and the Children's group above the rest in location and vocal pitch. A piano with four hands and a positive organ added to Britten's transfiguring timbres. The Children's Choir deserves special accolades for handling his modernist harmonies so deftly. As an effective encore, Leppard himself set some a cappella verses for Apollo, continuing Britten's style, but at scarcely above a whisper.

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