in: Reviews

December 10, 2010

Camerata’s Imagined Instrumentation

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It’s probably fair to say that no other American performing group has done more to awaken audience interest in medieval music than the Boston Camerata, welcomed enthusiastically by a capacity crowd at the Longy School on Sunday afternoon, December 5, in a program titled “The Sacred Bridge.” Founded in 1954 by lutenist Joel Cohen [Ed. Note: see comments below], the ensemble has performed around the world, produced numerous recordings and, in recent years, expanded its repertory beyond the boundaries of medieval and Renaissance Europe to include the musics of colonial Latin and North America as well as the Near East. In 2008 the artistic direction of the ensemble was taken over by its longtime soloist soprano Anne Azéma, recently named a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for her contributions to French musical culture.

Sunday’s program presented the latest incarnation of the Camerata’s “Sacred Bridge,” part of an ongoing effort to explore parallels between Jewish, Christian, and Muslim musics of the Middle Ages. The title itself harks back to a 1959 work by the Viennese-born scholar Eric Werner, who sought to link the chants of the synagogue with those of the early Christian church. Few scholars today subscribe to Werner’s thesis of continuity between Jewish and Gregorian melodies and psalm tones, and similar efforts to “match up” sketchily notated or unwritten melodies from different traditions — sacred or secular — are fraught with pitfalls. Another murky area of musical history concerns the instruments played by medieval musicians. Parts for instruments are never specified in the surviving manuscripts, and instruments were generally banned from places of worship. Very few of them survive, in fact, although we have a good idea of what they looked like from pictures and sculptures. But what did they sound like and what music did they play? Attempts to reconstruct medieval ensembles and their repertory by analogy with contemporary musical practices in North Africa and the Near East have enriched the medieval sound palette with exotic tonal color, but they have been treated with some skepticism by those who maintain  that most medieval monophonic song, particularly of the “high style” or elevated type, was sung in a freely declamatory rhythm and without instrumental accompaniment.

For Sunday’s program, the Camerata ensemble included Director Emeritus Joel Cohen, who played the lute and the gittern and occasionally joined in singing and recitation; singers Anne Azéma (who is also Artistic Director) and Michael Collver, who also played the cornetto; Jesse Lepkoff on flute and recorder; and Carol Lewis playing vielle and viola da gamba. They were joined by the three musicians of the Sharq Arabic Music Ensemble, singer and nay (end-blown flute) and percussion player Boujoumaa Razgui, ‘oud (lute) and voice from Mehmet Sanlikol, and director and percussionist Karim Nagi.

Transverse (western) flute and nay playing from the balcony introduced the first part of the program, “Songs of Exile,” which featured a Sephardic lament followed by Psalm 137, “By the rivers of Babylon,” sung in Hebrew by Joel Cohen. The “Sacred Bridge” was represented by Latin and Hebrew versions of Psalm 114 and a “Eulogy of Moses” by Obadiah the Proselyte, a 12th-century Italian convert to Judaism. Imagined instrumental parts surrounded the vocal numbers with preludes or interludes or provided heterophonic accompaniments. These could be colorfully atmospheric, but at times the jingle-jangle of percussion was an unwelcome distraction. This was particularly the case in the trouvère song by Mathieu le Juif that opened the section on “Minority Minstrels in the Christian Middle Ages.” Anne Azéma’s ringing and unwaveringly focused delivery, expressive ornamentation, and convincing articulation showed her to be completely at home in this repertory; a dramatic highlight of the afternoon was her delivery of Mathieu’s nasty “envoi” to his lady (“May God make your face wrinkled and old!”) from the front of the stage. Unfortunately, the instrumental interludes only diminished the drama, successively re-orchestrated with each stanza until the entire band joined in at the end. A more restrained vielle drone accompanied countertenor Michael Collver’s evocative and compelling performance of a melancholy poem in Middle-High German by Sueskint von Trimberg, Collver, and Azéma. A section on Jewish Folksong of the Mediterranean concluded with a prayer of celebration on the Circumcision in Hebrew, sung in dialogue by Azéma and Collver, with Jesse Lepkoff’s flute providing an ornamented version of the simple melody.

Post-intermission, the program focused on “Mystical Spain.” Here the intent was to demonstrate intersections, indeed similarities, between songs of Christians, Muslims, and Jews, with polyglot performances of similar melodies both successively and simultaneously involving singers and instrumentalists of both the Camerata and the Sharq ensembles. Several numbers were taken from the monumental collection assembled in the mid-13th century by Alfonso the Wise, king of Castile and León. Their insistent rhythms (at least in this interpretation) contrasted with the formulaic chant of a passage from the Koran, beautifully rendered by Boujoumaa Razgui. Azéma led the group in an exuberant finale based on a traditional Arabo-Andalusian dawn prayer, topping it off with a suitably virtuosic melisma (the singing of a single syllable of text while moving between several different notes in succession). Two rousing encores in Arabic and Ladino underscored the program’s theme of cultural harmony.

Although some of the Camerata’s mixtures came close to being “over the top,” we can be grateful to them for bringing the music of divergent cultures to our attention in vibrant performances. Let’s hope we soon have the chance to hear a complete program of Arabic music by the Sharq Ensemble.

Virginia Newes lives in Cambridge. She was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.

2 Comments

  1. Ms. Newes is entirely right that the subject of accompaniment — or non-accompaniment — of medieval song is one inherently fraught with controversy. All modern reconstructions of this repertoire involving instruments are of necessity hypothetical, based in large measure on speculation and analogy. Camerata has taken many varied approaches to this body of music and poetry over the years. Regarding the “high style” or a capella concept, I’ve written an article of my own on this subject, taking issue with at least some aspects of the currently conventional wisdom. But by all means, let’s have more discussion of this whole fascinating issue, and more performances!

    Now let’s leave musicology aside for an instant. I’d like to defend, in the here and now, the magnificent playing of Messrs Razgui and Nagi against charges of jingo-jangoism. The Camerata-Sharq accompaniment choices for certain medieval songs are historically plausible or not, depending on one’s scholarly point of view.

    But I must note that we had just about the best percussionists imaginable onstage last Sunday. During several seasons of collaboration, I have never heard an unmusical sound from either of these distinguished artists. In the sometimes slam-bang (or jingle-jangle) world of medieval music reconstructions, these two men are in a highly refined musical category of their own!

    On another front, Camerata was indeed founded in 1954, but oops, your servant was only twelve at the time. The honor of starting it belongs to an exceptional woman, Narcissa Williamson, then an employee in the Education Department of the Museum of Fine Arts.

    Thanks in any case for this detailed and thoughtful review.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — December 10, 2010 at 11:40 pm

  2. Shame on me. I know by whom and when Boston Camerata was founded (and I know that Joel Cohen is younger than I by half a dozen years or so), but that phrase slipped my attention. Virginia Newes’s reviews are so near perfect that I read them solely for minor editorial changes, which are minimal to non-existent, and for their revelatory content. But as our Esteemed Publisher reminds me, “even editors make mistakes.”

    From the Camerata Site: “The Boston Camerata was associated until 1974 with the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It was founded at that institution by Narcissa Williamson, and was directed in its early seasons by Anne Gombosi, Howard Mayer Brown, Daniel Pinkham, and Victor Mattfeld. Camerata incorporated as a nonprofit entity, and began self-producing its own local concert series, in 1974. From 1968 to 2008, Joel Cohen directed the ensemble’s activities, which grew exponentially under his leadership. He is is now Music Director Emeritus.”

    Comment by Norton, Bettina A — December 11, 2010 at 9:13 am

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