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One of the heavenly voices: soprano Anne Harley.

O Holy Night
By B.A. Nilsson

Boston Camerata
Union 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 problem.

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.)

“As 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 of English.

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 pieces.

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 voices.

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 hits.

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