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An Evening At Pemberley
Written by Richard Stamp   
Published on Saturday, 09 August 2008

"QUIRKY CONCEPT" AND "CLASSICAL MUSIC" aren't two phrases which often share a sentence.  So I was intrigued by the idea behind An Evening At Pemberley, which combines a serious classical programme with an homage to the works of Jane Austen.  Any recital at the impressive St Andrew's and St George's deserves respect, but would this combination of the musical and the literary prove a cross-genre triumph, or a gimmicky dud?

It turned out, I'm pleased to say, to exceed the sum of its parts.  Tutored by coloratura soprano Patrice Boyd, who's clearly as passionate about Austen as she is about her music, we learned during the course of a fascinating hour about the drawing-room entertainment of the period - when young ladies performed to impress their suitors and peers, in such magnificent settings as the author's fictional Pemberley.

The opening part of the programme spoke of an almost gladiatorial contest at the piano, as ladies of accomplishment - proficient, but never professional - competed to attract the attention of an eligible man.  Performing in character, Boyd skipped coquettishly but oh-so-delicately through the early arias, selected to follow the course of Lizzy and Darcy's relationship in Austen's Pride and Prejudice.  For a few moments I truly was transported in time back to Darcy's estate, and imagined myself as the dashing hero Boyd was calling out to.  But it was not to be; her real-life husband, producer Tarpley Mott, was sitting not six feet away. 

Ably accompanied by Joan Krueger's piano, Boyd moved on to the programme's crowd-pleasers, drawn from Mozart's Marriage of Figaro.  But even these were enriched by some historical context.  As Boyd explained, the demands of publishers mandated each opera contain a few arias simple enough to purchase on sheet music and perform at home.  In a brave but successful twist, she'd selected a handful of pieces requiring lesser proficiency, illustrating the music you might have heard every day in a country house of the time.

Yet the simpler pieces served all the more to highlight the musicians' technical skill as they moved on to the programme's meaty central component, Handel's Sweet Bird.  The still air of St Andrew's and St George's resonated to the sound of bird-song as Boyd showed off her impressive tone and range, calling high and low to the no-less-accomplished accompaniment of Fiona Paterson's flute.  It was a concept re-visited at the end of the recital, with Sir Henry Bishop's Lo, Here The Gentle Lark; and while I won't spoil the surprise of the encore, let's just say they've prepared a special treat to celebrate their trip to Scotland.

From the enthusiastic response which greeted each Austen reference, it was clear that most of the audience had come for the literary connection; and if, like me, you have no idea what happened when Mary Bennet tried to play Haydn, a few of the references will go far over your head.  But don't let that put you off.  Just enjoy this unique and well-constructed foray into the music of a bygone age - and prepare to be bedazzled and bewitched by an intimate recital from these musical rising stars.  I wish there was more like this at the Fringe.

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