Forget the portly guy in the red suit. The Choir of the Cathedral of the Madeleine will tell you the story of the real St. Nick on Sunday.
The centerpiece of the choir's annual St. Cecilia's Day concert is "Saint Nicolas," a 1948 cantata by Benjamin Britten. It's a series of episodes from the life of the fourth-century bishop of Myra who "morphed over time to become St. Nicholas or Santa Claus," said tenor Robert Breault, who will sing the title role.
Nicolas was a precocious child who burst from the womb singing "God be glorified" and later calmed the seas and performed other miracles, Breault said. In one particularly vivid episode portrayed in the cantata, Nicolas senses something amiss while dining at a tavern. It turns out that the owner has kidnapped, chopped up and pickled three young boys with the intention of serving them for dinner.
But for Breault, even more striking than Nicolas' miraculous rescue of the pickled boys is the saint's lifelong striving for humility. The section in Eric Crozier's libretto in which Nicolas sings of this quest is a high point for the tenor.
Britten wrote several short operas and cantatas for performance in a church by a mix of professional and amateur musical forces. Breault sang the role of the Tempter in Utah Opera's 1996 production of Britten's "The Prodigal Son" at the Cathedral of the Madeleine. But this is his first chance to perform with the choir of the Madeleine Choir School, which he considers one of Salt Lake City's treasures. "It's kind of interesting because I'm Catholic, but I haven't been able to make it work with these guys," he said. "It's really meaningful to me."
Gregory Glenn, founder of the Madeleine Choir School, will conduct the Cathedral Choir young singers from the choir school, with adult men providing the lower voices along with a small string ensemble, two pianists and percussion. He also will invite the audience to sing along on two congregational hymns (the tunes are "Old Hundredth" and "London New," if you'd like to practice beforehand).
The concert, which marks the centennial of Britten's birth, will include a performance of contemporary Estonian composer Arvo PÃ¤rt's "Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten" for strings and organ. Glenn also has programmed Herbert Howells' "Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing" in honor of the upcoming 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination. "It's a haunting work on a fourth-century Latin text, written for the national service after Kennedy's death," the conductor said. "It's considered one of Howells' best large motets."
Not-so-jolly old elf
The Choir of the Cathedral of the Madeleine presents its annual St. Cecilia's Day concert, featuring music of Benjamin Britten, Arvo PÃ¤rt and Herbert Howells.
When • Sunday, Nov. 17, 8 p.m.
Where • Cathedral of the Madeleine, 331 E. South Temple, Salt Lake City
Tickets • Free; request seating passes at utmcs.org or 801-994-4663