The great 20th century English composer Benjamin Britten wrote a huge volume of works that included everything from chamber music to opera. And while his music isn't played in the United States as much as it deserves, one work does receive its fair share of performances: the holiday choral piece "A Ceremony of Carols." But Britten also wrote another work for the Christmas season that is much more substantial: the cantata "Saint Nicolas" for tenor solo, choir and small instrumental ensemble. The work is a yule-time staple in England but almost completely unknown here. And that's one of the reasons Brady Allred decided to program it this year for his Salt Lake Choral Artists annual Christmas concert, which takes place Saturday.
"I wanted to give the Salt Lake community a different flavor this Christmas," Allred told the Deseret News. "It's a great piece, but people here just don't know it."
"Saint Nicolas" is a dramatic story that recounts the life of St. Nicholas, an early Christian saint who lived in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries in Asia Minor. Many miracles dealing with young people have been attributed to him; for that reason, he is known as the patron saint of children. He is also the model for today's Santa Claus.
One section of the cantata details one of St. Nicholas' miracles. In one version of the story, three boys are kidnapped by an evil butcher who kills them and puts them in a pickling jar. St. Nicholas appears and prays for them, and, through his intervention, restores them to life. "I've had some interesting comments about that over the past few weeks," Allred quipped.
Despite what one may think, the work is in no way bleak. "There are some wonderful hymn tunes throughout the cantata," Allred said. "The orchestration is colorful, and there are antiphonal effects like in the 'War Requiem.' It's very well-written for the voices, and the tenor part, which Todd Miller will sing, is virtuosic."
As far as Allred knows, this will be the premiere performance of "Saint Nicolas" in Salt Lake City, and also Allred's first time conducting it.
The entire concert, in fact, will consist of firsts. Joining the Choral Artists in the second half of the program will be the Utah Premiere Brass, a Provo-based British brass band, in Christmas carols arranged for band and choir.
"They're a wonderful band," Allred said. "Their array of instruments is really something." A British brass band, unlike its American counterpart, has no woodwinds, just brass. "They have flugelhorns, various forms of cornets and different versions of horns. The sound is really beautiful and mellow."
Since arrangements of Christmas songs for choir and brass are nearly nonexistent, Allred asked composers to make arrangements, including Merrill Jenson, who adapted "O Little Town of Bethlehem" using the British melody.
The Young Choral Artists and the Women's Choir will also sing short sets in the second half.
If you go
What: "Christmas with Saint Nicolas," Salt Lake Choral Artists, Brady Allred, music director
Where: Libby Gardner Concert Hall, University of Utah
When: 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 18
How much: $25 general admission, $10 students