6 December 1998 “A Celebration for the Feast of St. Nicolas”

Philippa Kiraly, Special to the Seattle P-I, December, 1998

Difficult Britten pieces flow together with help from many sources

More than any composer of this century, Benjamin Britten mixed his performing groups and made dramatic use of sacred space.

As he intended, his cantata “Saint Nicolas” was performed Sunday night by a professional choir and soloist, children’s choir, child soloists, church choir and professional musicians, all under the baton of Loren Pontén and using the spatial resources of St. James Cathedral.

It took a well-organized conductor to keep all those groups musically together, and under Pontén, the different sections dovetailed as smoothly as the drama of the music unfolded.

Opus 7, the resident ensemble of 23 singers at St. James Cathedral, performed the often musically difficult and intensely dramatic parts, with the children of St. James Cathedral Schola Cantorum singing folklike narrative carols with a medieval tinge.

Soprano Jeffrey Aquino sang the small role of the boy Nicolas. Tenor Howard Fankhauser, undertaking the core of the work, sang Nicolas as young man, holy man, bishop, prisoner and at his death. His clear voice, secure pitch, and sense of drama made his performance gripping, moving and sincere.

Britten was a master of tone painting, and his music for the small orchestra playing underneath and around the singing is extraordinary: springtime and storm, calm sea and wild, serenity and trouble. Percussion has a major role, expertly realized by Matthew Kocmieroski and Rob Tucker, as does solo violin, well played by John Pilskog.

Pontén and Opus 7, which he founded six years ago, have grown in stature. Opus 7 is now an important a cappella choir and Pontén a young choral director worth watching.

Also heard was Britten’s early cantata, “A Boy Was Born,” sung by Opus 7 and the Prime Voci group from The Seattle Girls’ Choir. It was a pleasure.

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