Even as die-hard a fan such as I has to admit that there can be a certain sameness to a Boston Camerata Christmas program. But I counter the dreaded December assault of horrible holiday music with an annual visit to Union College’s Memorial Chapel to enjoy the early music ensemble’s trip back in time, and last Friday’s program—The Brotherhood of the Star: A Hispanic Christmas—was an outstanding example of how inspiring and peaceful such a concert can be.
And necessary. Coming as it did with the images of the Newtown school slaughter still distressingly fresh, music director Joel Cohen uncharacteristically made a brief statement to open the program, noting that “we don’t know why terrible things happen. We don’t know why wonderful things happen,” and dedicating the concert to the pursuit of peace.
And then tenor Daniel Hershey sang from the back of the house, an unaccompanied Sephardic song signaling the Day of Judgment, segueing into the drone of a hurdy-gurdy played by soprano Anne Azéma, who sang the 13th-century intercessionary “Madre de Deus,” punctuated by baroque trumpet (from the left balcony), played by Michael Collver. Followed by bass-baritone Don Wilkinson’s stately right-balcony “O oriens,” a solo-voice Gregorian chant.
Memorial Chapel is atmospheric with age and acoustically lively, so it’s a Camerata tradition to take advantage of those qualities. When the music there sounds behind me, I’m disinclined to turn my head, allowing what turned into a center-aisle procession to swell as soprano Salomé Sandoval led the ensemble in “Pois que dos reys nostre Senhor.” She paused beside my pew and I caught the full force of a beautifully modulated voice. Collver is also a countertenor, and added his own clear sound as Cohen provided spare accompaniment on a diminutive lute.
The eight performers took places across the stage and guided us through this Spanish-flavored Christmas story, the music ranging in era from Gregorian chant to the 20th century, mixing sacred, secular and secular-turned-sacred.
And the scriptural texts, familiar even to a heathen like me, were spoken in Spanish and English by various ensemble members.
Giving the anonymous 15th-century “Reina muy esclarecida” to the male vocal trio gave it a nicely contrasting texture, but the piece opened up from there, adding Cohen and Olav Chris Henriksen on lutes and then soprano Azéma as the piece gave way to a 13th-century Marian laud.
Part of what kept the energy high was the performers’ enthusiasm. Part of it was the constantly changing texture, helped by the variety of instrumental and vocal sound. Henriksen switched at one point to a frame drum. Carol Lewis played vielle and (most of the time) viola da gamba. Sandoval picked up guitar or vihuela from time to time.
And when Collver wielded a curvy cornetto, as in Diego Ortiz’s 16th-century Ricercada (a Folias setting), the arresting sound and impressive virtuosity won a round of applause.
Other highlights were a castanets-enhanced “Riu riu chiu”; Sandoval’s vocal on the Andalusian lullaby “Duermete, niño, duérme,” (re-set by Falla in his Siete canciones populares Españolas); the contrasting refrains of the slow “Hanacpachap cussicuini,” the second refrain given a subtle swing by the five singers, and the lively instrumental “Cumba,” from Baroque-era Mexico, featuring Henriksen on guitar with all the other plucked instruments soon joining in.
We sang along with the penultimate number (we always do), the Catalonian “Què li darem?” and it sounds like we’re getting pretty good at it after all these years. And then a lively guaracha brought it to a close, alternating solemn and up-tempo vocal refrains set to infectiously off-kilter rhythmic accents. There’s no other encore, Cohen explained, but to play it again, and the echoes of it sent us back into the current century, ready once again to face the Muzak.