of the heavenly voices: soprano Anne Harley.
College Memorial Chapel, Dec. 22
Although stymied by a winter storm on Dec. 17, the Boston
Camerata was able to reschedule and (mostly) regroup for a
closer-to-Christmas appearance at Union College’s Memorial
Chapel, the 15th such holiday concert for the ensemble and
probably the single most tasteful, peaceful and even reverent
event presented in this area.
A Medieval Christmas was the title of this year’s program,
reprising a popular lineup of songs and readings that, rarefied
content notwithstanding, would charm the most misanthropic
of attendees. I know: I’m one of them, and it did.
We’re accustomed to holiday music written mostly within the
last century; this program spanned some 700 years, from the
10th to the 16th century, with selections that ranged from
spare solos to boisterous, full-company fun.
Although the program is meant to be presented by nine performers,
one was unable to reschedule; the remaining eight filled in
the gaps seamlessly enough that there was no evidence of a
Many languages and musical styles—not to mention voices and
instruments—were woven into the Christmas story, told in five
parts beginning with the prophecies as rendered in Hebrew
and then Spanish.
Much of The Bridegroom Comes was drawn from the Sponsus
miracle play, dating to 12th-century Limoges, which also
featured the ensemble’s women’s voices, a heavenly blend of
the dulcet from three distinctive singers: sopranos Anne Azéma
and Anne Harley and mezzo Deborah Rentz-Moore. And they took
advantage, as always, of the chapel’s splendid acoustics by
placing singers at the back of the house or in a balcony from
time to time to alter the sense of presence.
(Which brings up a question of etiquette: Should you turn
to see singers singing behind you? Many in the audience do
so; I believe in facing forward to preserve the spatial effect.)
Europe was emerging from the Dark Ages,” said Boston Camerata
director Joel Cohen, “we began to get a feel for the richness
of 12th- and 13th-century culture, but musical notation was
elusive.” Much of what we heard was realized by Cohen and
the Camerata members as a best guess—but it’s entirely convincing.
This is the best kind of scholarship, where the scholarship
itself becomes transparent.
Cohen also allowed us the sounds of words themselves from
that time with a reading from the Book of John rendered in
Old Saxon dialect, barely recognizable to a contemporary speaker
The devotional beauty of the fourth section, Queen of Heaven,
was a fitting close to the first half. Tenor Dan Hershey and
baritone Donald Wilkinson held their own against the formidable
trio of women, and the instrumental accompaniment—Cohen on
various lutes, Jesse Lepkoff on flutes and recorders, and
Hazel Brooks, a virtuoso of the violinlike vielle—was added
sparingly but with excellent textural effect. Azéma added
the drone of a hurdy-gurdy for the 13th- century English Edi
be thu hevene quene for a pleasing pastoral effect.
Then it was on to the Christmas story itself for the second
half, interspersing Gregorian, French, German and English
songs (among others) with modern- English Bible readings.
The reader of a particular section typically then began the
appropriate number, joined by other singers and instrumentalists
in a contrasting flow of solos, duets, trios and full ensemble
Excellent pacing and variety was a hallmark of the concert,
and the audience was impressively not bashful about joining,
when invited, to sing In dulci jubilo with very practiced-sounding
Last year’s Camerata concert was A Renaissance Christmas,
visiting the worshipers and merrymakers of 16th- and 17th-century
Europe, and featuring more familiar tunes. This Medieval program
was fascinating in its mystery, however, an appropriate but
neglected aspect of this holiday. The program for 2004 is
as yet unannounced, but it hardly matters. If it’s anything
like the last few, it will be a much-needed oasis as the madness