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University Chorus to present Britten cantata ‘Saint Nicholas’

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From page A9 | December 03, 2013 |

Check it out

What: UC Davis University Chorus performing ‘Saint Nicholas’

When: 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 6

Where: Jackson Hall, Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, UC Davis

Tickets: $17 general, $8 students; www.mondaviarts.org, 530-754-2787

The UC Davis University Chorus will honor composer Benjamin Britten — born 100 years ago, in 1913 — by presenting his cantata “Saint Nicholas” at 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 6, in the Mondavi Center’s Jackson Hall.

But don’t expect a sugary piece about “jolly old St. Nick.”

Britten’s cantata is about the life of the historic figure — a holy man who lived many centuries ago, and became the patron saint venerated by children, sailors, voyagers and scholars.

According to conductor Jeffrey Thomas, there are only “a few facts” about the historic Saint Nicholas that are certain — and they are not the stuff of colorful, gift-wrapped presents waiting under a decorated tree.

“We do know that he was born in the third century in Patara, in what is now Turkey,” Thomas said. “He was born of wealthy parents, who died of the plague while he was young.  Observing the teachings of his faith, he gave all his wealth to charity, to assist the needy, the sick and the suffering, and went in pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

“Legend tells us that on his return voyage, his ship was in great peril as a mighty storm threatened to wreak vast destruction. Nicholas’ prayers were answered, and the lives of the terrified sailors were spared.”

Nicholas soon became the bishop of the city of Myra, but got in trouble with Diocletian, a Roman emperor, who had Nicholas exiled and imprisoned. Nicholas eventually was released and resumed his religious life. He died on Dec. 6, 343 — making this performance by the University Chorus on Dec. 6 particularly timely. Within a century of his passing, Nicholas was made a saint, and Dec. 6 became a widely celebrated feast day in Europe.

“Our modern-day concept of Saint Nicholas began in America, in 1809, when (author) Washington Irving published his satirical ‘Knickerbocker’s History of New York,’ ” Thomas continued. “(That book) greatly influenced the portrayal of Saint Nicholas in Clement Clark Moore’s enormously popular poem ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ ” — a poem that famously begins “Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house/Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.”

Moore’s poem was widely reprinted, and as a result, “the saint was transformed into the jolly and elfin character who would soon be known as Santa Claus,” Thomas said. And at that point, the department stores took over.

Britten’s cantata — written in 1948, during the lean years following the harrowing devastation of World War II, during which several cities in southern England were bombed — harks back to the third-century holy man.

“The first movement is an entreaty to Nicholas by the performers, who ask him to strip off his glory and speak to them,” Thomas said. “He responds, ‘Across the tremendous bridge of sixteen hundred years, I come to stand in worship with you as I stood among my faithful congregation long ago.’ ”

Other movements depict the birth of Nicholas, his experience after his parents die of the plague, his journey to Palestine, his prayers that keep himself and his shipmates safe during the storm, the persecution of the early church under Roman rule, and more.

Britten wrote the cantata for the centennial of Lancing College, a private prep school for teens in rural Sussex, and it was composed for the forces that were available at the time — a professional tenor (Britten’s longtime associate Peter Pears), an adult chorus, a boys chorus, strings, piano duet, organ, timpani and other percussion.

This performance will feature tenor Steven Tharp, the Pacific Boychoir (a San Francisco group directed by Kevin Fox), pianists Ellen Deffner and Marilyn Swan, organist Don Scott Carpenter and the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra.

Since the Britten cantata runs about 50 minutes, the program also will include “Canticles of Light” — a 15-minute, three-movement piece by contemporary British composer Bob Chilcott, a former member of the vocal group The King’s Singers — with graduate student Garrett Rigsby conducting.

And, in a nod to modern Christmas customs, the concert will conclude with Leroy Anderson’s holiday pops sampler “A Christmas Festival.”

Tickets are $17 general, $8 for students, available at www.mondaviarts.org or 530-754-2787, and at the door.

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