Sunday, 18 December 2016

Claudia Álvarez Calderón Soprano & Vihuela Recital 'Joyful Christmas' Church of St Mary & St George Totnes Saturday 17 December 2016

Vihuela: David Stanley
Soprano: Claudia Álvarez Calderón

Claudia Álvarez Calderón returned to Totnes this weekend by popular request for another afternoon of coloratura Christmas Carols accompanied by Father Kristian Paver. In his introduction, Father Kristian reminded us of Claudia's illustrious career. Born in Lima, she trained as an opera singer in Rome, while also pursuing a passionate interest in the vocal music of her native Peru.

Vihuela: David Stanley
Father Kristian also provided the piano and organ accompaniment, but took a back seat initially as Claudia sang accompanied on the traditional Spanish vihuela de mano by David Stanley. The name 'vihuela' is a variant of 'viol', but the six courses of the vihuela approximate more closely to the modern guitar - and so does the shape and internal construction. 'De mano' refers to the playing method - plucking rather than bowing - also just like a guitar.

David's vihuela was made for him by a Sussex luthier, Alexander Batov. The sound is soft and gentle, somewhat like a lute. To demonstrate it's subtlety, David had prepared a vihuela arrangement of some beautiful plainsong, the Latin hymn "Puer Natus in Bethlehem'. As David played, Claudia harmonised in perfect Latin, recounting the tale of a certain little boy's birth.

Rather than Spanish or Italian, Claudia then proceeded to entertain the audience with three Christmas songs in German. "Es ist ein Ros' Entsprungen" (A Rose has Sprung Up) expounded the prophesy of Isaiah in Christian theology, in a harmonisation created by Michael Praetorius in 1609. The more modern "Maria Wiegenlied" (Mary's Cradle Song) by Max Reger recounts the New Testament vision of Mary rocking her new-born baby in his crib.

"Stille Nacht"
Claudia Álvarez Calderón
Finally, the nativity theme was completed with the German classic carol, "Stille Nacht" (Silent Night) by Franz Gruber - dedicated by Claudia to the memory of Helga Watts who was well known in Totnes as an Austrian zither player.

Father Kristian then switched from piano to organ, and Claudia changed languages to English, so that the audience could join in with a familiar Christian hymn - Nahum Tate's Winchester Carol, "While Shepherds Watched". Although singing relatively softly, Claudia kept us all in pitch with her perfect performance from the front.

"Plegaria" (Prayer) by Fermín Álvarez and the traditional Spanish carol "Los Peces en el Río" gave Claudia a chance to display her perfect diction in her native language. The delightful story of the fishes celebrating the birth of Jesus by dancing in the river is naturally a favourite in Spain and South America - but also a joy for English audiences too.

The French section of the recital began with audience participation in "Les Anges dans nos Campagne" (We have heard angels in heaven) by James Cadwick. Claudia sang the first two verses in French, but many other voices joined in, not wanting to wait for the English verses to follow. And all boomed out in Latin "Gloria in Excelsis Deo". The French theme continued with Claudia's delightful rendition of 'Minuit Chrétiens" (O Holy Night) by Adolphe Adam, with additional verses in English.

"That was how the First Christmas Began"
Soprano: Claudia Álvarez Calderón
Piano: Margaret Merrington
After the interval Margaret Merrington returned, by popular demand, to give a repeat performance of the carol "That was how the First Christmas Began" which she introduced at last year's concert. This piece was almost lost in a house fire, shortly before the death of the composer, Margaret's husband Tom Merrington.

Particularly moving was the charred remnant of Tom's composition, which was saved from the blaze. With Margaret's ingenuity, this is now a popular carol in Totnes. As Margaret played the melody, and Claudia sang the words, the audience joined in as well - although it wasn't really their turn. As more voices joined in, the sound swelled to a joyous celebration of Tom's work.

Appropriately, the next carol was "On Christmas Night all Christians Sing" arranged by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Marked 'audience participation', this was also a chance to hear a familiar hymn sung perfectly by Claudia.

"Salve Maria"
Claudia Álvarez Calderón
There were two Italian songs, adding to the international flavour of the afternoon. "Tu Scendi dalle Stelle" (You Came Down from the Stars) is an early eighteenth century carol attributed to St Alphonso di Liguori. This is possibly the only popular carol sung in Italy, and so a perfect representation of the Italian Christmas. "Salve Maria" (Hail Mary) by Saverio Mercadante was composed a century later, and is a more general expression of Catholic devotion. Claudia sang with operatic passion, drawing out the full meaning of the words.

The same theme was also worked by Franz Schubert as "Ellen's Third Song" in his setting of Walter Scott's "The Lady of the Lake". This Latin "Ave Maria" sounds so natural when Claudia sings it, and is instantly familiar to Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

Having sung a little in French, the audience were then able to try out their Latin in "Adeste Fideles" by John Francis Wade. The English version followed, with Claudia harmonising from the stage, the perfect accompaniment.

"Los Peces en el Río"
Claudia Álvarez Calderón
Claudia, as always generous in word and deed, finished the concert by distributing presents to David, Margaret and Father Kristian in recognition of their efforts. Finally she sang an encore of the sweetest song of all "Los Peces en el Río" with a little improvised introductory explanation. Spanish speakers know that the song runs on two planes. In the mundane world, Mary has household chores to attend to, not least of which is dealing with her baby's nappies. Meanwhile the fish in the river drink and drink - and drink again - rejoicing to witness the birth of God, "Beben y beben, y vuelven a beber. Los peces en el río por ver a Dios nacer."

Many thanks to Claudia and all the performers for a spectacular and enchanting end to an enthralling concert. Proceeds, as always, will go to the Church's adopted orphanage in Anjara, Jordan, Our Lady of the Mount Children's Home. Recordings will appear on future "Classical Journey" programmes on Phonic FM and Soundart Radio, and Claudia herself will be in the Soundart studio in person this Monday with David Stanley to discuss their music, and play us a live performance. (Classical Journey Redux, 1-3pm Monday 17 December, Soundart Radio 102.5 FM

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