Saturday, 14 December 2013

Jeni Melia and friends come to Powderham Castle for a very special 'Christmas Celebration of Music' Friday 13 December 2013

Our hosts for an evening of excellent music:
Organist & Kapellmeister: Professor George Pratt
Soprano Soloist & Second Violin: Jeni Melia
'Cello: Rebecca Allnatt - First Violin: Lindsay Braga
Viola: Cathryn McCracken - Recorders: John Braga

Once again Hugh Courtenay, Eighteenth Earl of Devon, has opened the doors of his ancestral home for a concert of baroque music in the baroque splendour of the James Wyatt Music Room at Powderham Castle.

The music room was completed in 1794 to house the now priceless Bryce-Seede organ which had been installed in the castle chapel a quarter of a century earlier. The plaster work all around the room is a spectacular combination of turquoise and cameo. everywhere there are plasterwork embellishments including flowers and figures playing musical instruments.

The flower motif extends with enhanced perspective into the high cupola over the centre of the room, from which is suspended the magnificent candelabra. Hidden lighting illuminates the cupola, and in every alcove an alabaster amphora stands, with light emanating though its delicate translucence.

Baroque workmanship
The Bryce-Seede Organ
Gold painted chairs with red velvet upholstery are set out for the audience, all facing the impressive Bryce-Seede Organ. With its woodwork also emblazoned in turquoise, the organ's fascia is further enhanced by a shining set of slender golden organ pipes (which are just for show - the real 'works' are in a separate room beyond).

The console of the organ is a small and beautifully preserved example of baroque craftsmanship. The stops and keys are all original, right down to the small teak plank which fills in the space on the left-hand end of the upper manual. (Anyone who stayed tuned after last week's 'Mighty Book' would have heard the castle kapellmeister, Prof George Pratt, explain how this space was left to accommodate further keys - and the corresponding pipes - should the need arise.)

Guests arrive in style, the bridge across the moat bringing them to an impressive gatehouse which leads into an enclosed courtyard. Visitors in cars are permitted to drive right in and park in front of the castle's grand entrance hall. At the door castle staff make everyone welcome and a magnificent blazing fire crackles invitingly in the hearth of the Charles Fowler State Dining Room. This room is a relatively late addition to the castle, having been commissioned by the Tenth Earl in 1835.

The decor, however, gives the impression of an even earlier age. Above the oak parquet, heavy oak dado panelling gives way to a rich indigo wallpaper around the leaded glass casements. The ceiling, at least twenty feet above, is made up of panels in a deeper hue between ornate oak beams. The walls are illustrated by vast and commanding portraits of Courtenay ancestors in oils. Finally there is the great fireplace itself. The stone surround is decorated with elaborate family crests. The grate, which is over ten feet wide, burns huge logs making the whole space cosy and inviting.

Initially, however, everyone is eager to pass straight through the State Dining Room, and the Library, to get to the music room. Once everone was there, unexpectedly, at the click of a switch, all the colour and splendour of James Wyatt's work was eclipsed as the light were extinguished.

In the darkness a small candle could be seen - carried in from the library by guest soloist Jeni Melia. In the shadows Jeni's small sweet voice could be heard singing a gentle Christmas carol. As James Wyatt intended, the acoustics of the room and its cupola brought that soft sound faithfully to every listening ear. The scene was set.

Jeni then introduced the first instrument of the night. Lindsay Braga (a familiar player with 'Divertimento Entertainments') entered with violin. Jeni's speech, like her song was easy to hear, while being very gentle and strangely muted. The ornamentations on the walls and up into the cupola break up every flat surface and prevent harsh echoes. Jeni and Lindsay started the programme with four very special songs for violin and voice from the twentieth century, by Gustav Holst.

Jeni then took up her own violin, and was joined by violist Cathryn McCracken and 'cellist Rebecca Allnatt in an instrumental suite by baroque composer Georg Philip Telemann. George Pratt provided continuo on harpsichord, while the recorder melody was added by Lindsay's father John Braga, who also gave a potted history of the great Telemann. (In their time Telemann was a more popular, and more successful, musician than his contemporary and friend Johann Sebastian Bach.)

They played only four of the seven movements of the suite, but they were perfect. The overture was slow and light, leading to the fast round of 'Les Plaisirs'. 'Rejoissance' led to the concluding 'Polonaise'. John's softly sibilant treble recorder gently complimented the strings. With just violins and viola accompanying, John played a delicious cadenza in the 'Rejoissance'.

To give Jeni time to prepare for her 'first half closer', George played the organ while John joined the string trio, playing a flute. With George's encouragement the audience endeavoured to raise the roof with a rousing rendition of Ralph Vaughan Williams' "O Little Town of Bethlehem".

Jeni Melia then amazed everyone by returning to sing Giovanni Pergolesi's 'Salve Regina' with string and organ accompaniment. George had provided an English translation on the carol sheet, but it was enough just to listen to Jeni's beautiful voice. As the first verse ended, "gementes et flentes in hac lacrimarum valle" (sighing and weeping in this vale of tears), Jeni modulated that penultimate syllable with incredible power and confidence - but gently. The same motif reappeared many times and was utterly gorgeous. Jeni's interpretation was quite unique.

For the second verse Jeni opened unaccompanied - a very confident move. The strings, when they came in, confirmed what we expected: perfect pitch! The strings and John's treble recorder later took over to introduce the penultimate section, "Iesum, benedictum fructum ventris tui" (the fruit of your womb, Jesus) before Jeni's most poignant line of all (and the perfect end to the first half of the concert), "O clemens, O pia, O dulcis Virgo Maria" (merciful, loving, sweet Virgin Mary). Amen.

Distinguished guests
are served with wine
While Jeni and the other musicians relaxed in the library, the audience made their way to the State Dining Room, which was now suffused with the rosy glow of that great log fire. in one corner stood an impressive sixteen foot Christmas tree, beautifully decorated and subtly illuminated by tiny electric candles. On a table at the other end of the room were serried ranks of shining glasses - full of mulled wine!

The audience relax
in the State Dining Room
With the audience suitably refreshed, the music began again. Jeni sang an aria from Bach's cantata "Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot" (Feed the Hungry - BWV 39), "Höchste was ich habe ist nur deine Gabe" (Excellency, what is mine is yours). This popular aria expresses the Christian sentiment of a confused desire to express thanks to God with gifts, while understanding that God has no interest in gifts. Jeni explained perfectly!

Now it was time for another 'instrumental'. George introduced an even earlier work, Archangelo Corelli's Concerto Grosso Opus 6 Number 8 (The 'Christmas' Concerto). There were twelve concerti in all, which were very influental. Vivaldi later composed a suite of twelve concerti grossi of his own. The 'Christmas' element in Corelli's concerto No 8 is the 'Pastorale', a ciciliano danced by shepherds, reminiscent of the shepherds in the Luke Gospel nativity story. ("And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks by night.")

Originally scored for two violins and 'cello, this concerto was later extended by Corelli for a larger string ensemble of up to thirty instruments. Lindsay and Jeni provided the violins, and Rebecca the 'cello. The 'full orchestra' effect was left in the able hands of violist Cathryn Mc Cracken and George at the organ. The resulting sound was definitely authentic.

Jeni then sang Peietro Yon's delightful Italian carol 'Gesu Babino' (Baby Jesus). Jeni sang an English translation which made it very clear that the words come from John Wade's "Adeste Fideles" (O Come All Ye Faithful). The tune was familiar but intriguingly different. A very lovely arrangement, which sounded glorious with just Lindsay's violin and George's organ accompanying.

Continuing the theme of the closing pastorale of the Christmas concerto, the audience then sang Nahum Tate's "While Shepherds Watched their Flocks" to the tune of Christopher Tye's 'Winchester Old'. (Very appropriate as the Eighteenth Earl is a Winchester alumnus!) When the Bryce-Seede organ was intalled, this was the only Christmas Hymn permitted by the Church of England, and so probably the first played on the organ. How wonderful to hear it ringing out again at the able hands of George Pratt.

Jeni Melia had another major work prepared for the evening. After the Carol she introduced Antonio Vivaldi's motet "Nulla in Mundo Pax Sincera" (In this world there is no genuine peace). Vivaldi, working at the Ospedale della Pietà (Mercy Hospital) in Venice, wrote this haunting song for the orphan girls to sing.

Jeni also mentioned the equally moving connection with Scott Hicks' biographical movie 'Shine', starring Geoffrey Rush as David Helfgott the talented Australian pianist who became ill with schizoaffective disorder while studying at the Royal College in London. The close to this very poignant movie was accompanied by a performance of the first aria by Australian soprano Jane Edwards, accompanied on the harpsichord and 'cello by Geoffrey Lancaster and Gerald Keuneman.

That opening aria has featured on 'Classical Journey' many times, in a perfect recording by Exeter soprano Mary O'Shea (with backing and acoustics skilfully added by Dan Gale in Taunton). Jeni took things further, singing the entire motet - a recitative leads to a second, equally enchanting, aria. Finally Jeni sang the devastating final 'Alleluyah' which lasted two and a half minutes and included some of the most spectacular virtuoso soprano singing of the evening. 'Cello and harpsichord were provided by Rebecca Allnatt and George Pratt, naturally!

While the audience were still exulting following the Vivaldi, the musicians accompanied them in "O Come all Ye Faithful" (of course). Finally Jeni sang the seventeenth century Bolivian lullaby "Y Yaî Jesu Christo" With a little help from George (and from Jeni's singing) the audience managed to master the words in baroque Spanish. After a solo performance by Jeni, the short verse was repeated with full instrumental accompaniment, and then full audience participation as well.

Finally Jeni sang two more times, as a 'recessional'. She slowly withdrew into the library as she sang the fourth repeat, after which the musician turned off their lights and Jeni's voice could be heard all alone, just as she had started the concert, the plaintive sound resounding gloriously around the hushed music room.

A talented, impressive, moving and extremely cleverly constructed programme of music. The evening's entertainment used the full potential of the beautiful location. All the effort and fund-raising that went into restoring the baroque organ were fully vindicated. The musicians all played beautifully and with a very professional polish, and everything was perfectly complemented by the lovely voice and stellar performance of the special guest, Jeni Melia.

Five more spectacular concerts at Powderham are planned for 2014 (two more than contractually required). Watch this space for details of how to get involved.

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