the joy back in the season: Boston Camerata’s Joel Cohen.
By B.A. Nilsson
College Memorial Chapel, Dec. 17
How long ago Christmas now seems! Part of my strategy for
surviving the commercialized crush of the holiday is a seat
at the annual Boston Camerata concert at Union College—a centerpiece
of the excellent concert series.
Antique instruments and gorgeous voices are the raw materials
for Boston Camerata director Joel Cohen’s musical explorations,
which range way beyond holiday music—but what he and his group
do for Christmas is so tasteful, so well-chosen and performed,
that it strips away all the many thick layers of entertainment
goo that clog our ears.
Christmas is a sacred event; it’s a secular event. With the
wide-ranging theme, a Renaissance Christmas, we visited the
worshipers and merrymakers of 16th- and 17th-century Europe.
Sometimes the two intersected, as in the Magnificat quinti
toni by the 16th-century Leipzig-based Johannes Galliculus.
Following an old German tradition, the text of the Magnificat
sports interpolated Christmas carols, switching from Latin
to German for the slightly more raucous pop stuff.
While most of the program was presented in a fairly staid
stand-and-sing manner, the group cut loose in Tura lura
lura, lo gau canta, a Provençal carol from the 17th century.
Still sung in Provence, it’s the plaint of a peasant en route
to Bethlehem. Cohen took the role of the peasant, adding a
goofy hat to signify simplemindedness, and the piece was lightly
staged, using proscenium and center aisle. It couldn’t have
been more engaging.
Cohen and company always make good use of the Memorial Chapel’s
splendid acoustics, and the concert opening—Tomas Luis de
Victoria’s enchanting O Magnum Mysterium—began with
unseen voices in the back of the balcony.
Soprano Anne Azéma has a lovely huskiness to her bell-like
voice, and in a solo like the anonymous Joseph est bien
marié, sung to a drone, she is a riveting performer (here
we heard the antecedent to the carol “Ding Dong Merrily on
The men’s voices also were distinctive in solos and nicely
blended. Countertenor Michael Collver, tenor Dan Hershey,
baritone Donald Wilkinson and bass Nicholas Isherwood filled
out the sound with a good range of color.
And we heard a wide range of instrumental color. As always,
Cohen provided a backbone with the difficult-to-master lute,
along with Carol Lewis’ continuo on treble and bass viol.
Karen Walthinsen switched between violin and the more nasal-sounding
vielle throughout the concert, which is hard enough to do
just from concert to concert.
With Mack Ramsey on sackbut (or recorder) and Collver picking
up the mute cornet (and a range of percussion among the other
singers), the group jammed on “Greensleeves,” proving that
the antecedents of jazz go back further than we often reckon.
Later in the program, the audience sang “Greensleeves”—holiday-usurped,
of course, as “What Child Is This,” another tradition with
Boston Camerata, and one that always finds the crowd in vigorous
From the raucous hand-clap accompanied song of the wolf (the
Spanish Riu riu chiu) to the lovely Praetorius settings,
the concert couldn’t have been more friendly or accomplished.
It wiped away three weeks’ worth of those horrible mall-imposed
bouts of “It’s a Marshmallow World” and strengthened us for
the worst of it, that final shopping week. It’s a holiday