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Gang-gang: Britten's Saint Nicolas to enjoy rare Canberra performance

Those of us who recklessly eat first and ask questions afterwards (this columnist in Shanghai found that he had just eaten bullfrogs and in Helsinki that he had just eaten a reindeer that was probably one of Santa's team, perhaps even Rudolph himself) should follow the example set by St Nicolas.

In Benjamin Britten's cantata Saint Nicolas, about to enjoy a rare Canberra performance,* Britten and his lyricist cover the occasion when Bishop Nicolas, sitting down to a meaty dinner at an inn, becomes suspicious of what the meat is. Intuitively he senses that the meat is the tender flesh of three tasty boys, murdered and then pickled to perfection by the local butcher. Nicolas calls to the boys, "Timothy, Mark, and John, Put your fleshly garments on!" and the boys come back to life. Understandably grateful, they warble many a "Hallelujah".

At Christmas in Christendom, sensitive people feel a craving for the sound of some sung Hallelujahs. This appetite is usually met by performances of Handel's Messiah. It's Hallelujah Chorus is an orgy of Hallelujahs.

But this Christmas, unusually, Canberra is not to have a full-scale performance of the Messiah by any of the big choral combos. Instead, courageously (in the Sir Humphrey sense of what it means to be courageous) the burly combos are performing other works. The Llewellyn Choir has already chirruped us Saint-Saens' Christmas Oratorio and on Saturday, Tobias Cole's Canberra Choral Society will, courageously, give us instead of the Messiah,  Vivaldi's Gloria, Britten's A Ceremony of Carols and also his aforementioned and action-packed Saint Nicolas. 

CCS chorister Kelly Corner is aware of the risks choral societies face in courageously offering conservative Canberrans unfamiliar works. She has even fossicked out for us a piece the late, legendary W L "Bill" Hoffmann wrote on this issue for The Canberra Times 40 years ago.

"My comments last week on the apparent dearth of Christmas music in Canberra brought a response from some musical bodies.


"A spokesman for the Choral Society contacted me to point out that one relevant reason for their presentation of Handel's Messiah  rather than other Christmas music I had suggested was that because of its great popularity, it was one presentation that the society could expect to run at a profit. When it puts on a Haydn Mass or even Bach's St John Passion the audience response is often poor, and they invariably make a loss. This unfortunately is an economic fact of musical life.

"It is the same around the world. When I was in London recently programs of orchestral music by Beethoven or Tchaikovsky consisting of their most hackneyed works were crowded: but a program by the New Philharmonia Orchestra of Berg's Violin Concerto and Bruckner's Fourth Symphony was so poorly attended that I counted only 32 people in the whole of the grand tier of the Festival Hall."

Corner says Handel's Messiah is a wonderful work to sing and a relatively "safe" concert because audiences know and love it. 

"But there is so much more beautiful music out there, and we want to share it, too. This Saturday's concert is a courageous decision from a marketing perspective, but definitely a worthwhile one musically."

* The courageous CCS's A Feast of St Nicolas, with a massed choir and the piping youngsters of the Turner Trebles, is on Saturday at the Llewellyn Hall at 7.30pm. Tickets at Ticketek.