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A Victorian parlor concert, featuring Christmas music, was held at Wilmington's historic Bellamy Mansion. This unusual event featured Susan Savia, an active area performer, singing and accompanying herself on the guitar. The mansion provided a warm and conducive setting, with the concert literally held in the parlor area, opened to include a second room. A 19th century square piano in the second room provided an artistic period witness to the music. The Bellamy Mansion itself is one of Wilmington's most beautiful historic houses and a main tourist attraction in the downtown area. It is in fact an antebellum – i.e. Victorian-era – mansion; as such, the setting for the performance was ideal.
Ms. Savia appeared in Victorian dress. She had an informal manner and divided the performance between the music and engaging, informative commentary. This was helpful, as not all the tunes were familiar; even for those that were, she brought out detail and background that added significantly to the performance. It turns out that some of today's favorite Christmas carols – "Jingle Bells," for instance – were actually written in the Victorian era, as well as being popular songs of the time.
Ms. Savia began her program with a Polish song, "Christmas is coming, Oh happy day." This set the tone. Like the rest of the numbers, it was pleasant, tending to a middle decorous emotional range. This, she explained afterwards, was characteristic. The Victorian taste was for cheerful, easily-sung songs. Strophic, diatonic, and a fairly narrow vocal range were the norm. Ms. Savia sang attractively, with a light, pleasing voice, using a mike and keeping an appropriately restrained dynamic compass.
The entire program included 17 numbers. While much held to an even keel, there were a few stand-out songs. One was "Silver and Still," one of the few songs in the minor mode. It told the story of a Christmas Rose – an emblem of Christ – in an almost somber vein, put forth by Ms. Savia with considerable expressivity and a rich vocal tone. Another was "Jingle Bells," the concluding item on the program.As in other carols, here we heard stanzas not sung at the typical Christmas gathering. Some of the words to this song, it turns out, are quite funny, and Ms. Savia seemed to take pleasure in hamming it up.
Finally, Ms. Savia also sang one African-American spiritual, an effective counterpoint to the rest of the music. This was "Go Tell it on the Mountain." She explained that the lyrics originally celebrated the Nativity, making it quite appropriate to the occasion. Here it seemed as though her passions found a voice. She sang this hymn a cappella, starting with light body percussion, progressing into clapping, and with more than a hint of gospel rhythm. The force of expression in this song was in some ways the highlight of the program.
Ms. Savia's voice was at its best when she sang below middle C, or a few steps above. In that range her tone was sonorous and full. Singing higher – which she did a good deal – was not always as successful. A bit more variety of keys, beyond the few that she consistently used, would have been helpful.
Interesting points in the commentary were the discussion of the English custom of Waits; the experiences of Henry W. Longfellow before he wrote the words to a carol about bells; the fact that the Church fathers for a long time condemned carols due to their associations with dancing; and the fact that the comma in "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" comes, as shown here, before "gentlemen," not before "merry," completely changing the meaning from what many people evidently believe it is.
The event was rounded off perfectly at intermission when the audience was treated to stollen, fruit cake, and cider making everyone feel like honored guests in a host's elegant home.