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Camerata with Saarinen Shake Up the Summer


Dance events, not normally within BMInt’s classical music purview, have nevertheless piqued our interest this summer. The Mark Morris Group has choreographed music of Hummel (discussed in our article here,) while also this summer, a local Boston Institution (Paris’s and Europe’s as well!) will be bringing Shaker music back to where Shakers shook to it 150 years ago. The Boston Camerata, in tandem with the Tero Saarinen Company of Finland, will return to the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival of Becket, MA (near the Hancock Shaker Village) with six encore performances of “Borrowed Light.”  Running from July 11-15, this production “is both austere and euphoric, with a score of moving Shaker spirituals sung live onstage by the preeminent early music group The Boston Camerata. Dancers twist, turn, and stomp in rigorous and ecstatic choreography as dramatic costumes and evocative lighting and set design by Mikki Kunttu add to a highly theatrical experience,” according to the Pillow’s publicist.

BMInt’s Lee Eiseman  recently interviewed Camerata’s Artistic Director Anne Azéma  and its Music Director Emeritus Joel Cohen about this music-and-dance collaboration, Shaker music in general, and future Camerata projects.

Anne Azéma and Camerata colleagues from the 2011 "Borrowed Light " tour (Joel Cohen photo)

BMInt: We’ve read good things about the “Borrowed Light” production, coming up soon at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in the Berkshires. And we’re disappointed that it has yet to play in Boston.

Anne: You know, the music business, like divinity, moves in mysterious ways. The Tero Saarinen/Boston Camerata “Borrowed Light” has been quite literally all over the map, from way up in northern Europe, say Berlin, to down-under Perth, Australia, with about 60 other stops in between. I think its absence from Boston proper has to do with the particular configuration of the arts and culture scene here at home. “Borrowed Light,” with eight dancers, eight singers, costumes, a set, and a tech crew, is certainly the most expensive show to put onstage in Camerata’s history. But oh, how we would love to see it play right here by the Charles. …  Never give up hope! But anyway, Becket, MA is just a hop and a skip away from Boston. It does feel like a homecoming, and a return to a lovely place after the original 2006 run — and we hope to see many of our Boston friends at the Pillow’s 80th anniversary season.

We occasionally hear grumblings about the liberties Camerata supposedly takes with early music repertoires. Please disabuse us!

Anne: Oh, we’re entirely happy to do so! In this case the grumblers are welcome to take a short course with us in Shaker paleography. Many, if not most, of the Shaker songs we have been performing since the mid ‘90s were transcribed by Joel, or sometimes by me, right from the original manuscript collection in Sabbathday Lake, Maine. The Shakers used their own form of musical notation, and this unfamiliar system is a challenge to the uninitiated. We also went to Shaker meetings — yes there are still Shakers — heard them sing, shared their joys and sorrows, and then attempted to pass on what we learned to our musician colleagues.

Joel: We’ve always tried to maintain the basic tenets of early Shaker style in our performances, both during “Borrowed Light” and in other settings. Straight a capella singing, no guitars or dulcimers or recorders.

Anne: We know the music; we know the people; we try to honor and respect their values. I notice there have been similar discussions in your columns about Sephardic music. [here and here]

Joel: Well, that’s another, if related, can of hummus. We’re channeling Shakers this week. I’ll be glad to get back to you later about the Jewish Question.

How evocative of historical Shaker movement is the dance within “Borrowed Light?”

Anne: Aha, that’s precisely where we need to emphasize the difference between our approach and the dance. Tero Saarinen, the brilliant Finnish choreographer, has not made anything like a postcard dance of Shaker life. While we in Camerata sing Shaker songs in a largely traditional manner, Tero has created, around that singing, an imaginary world of his own. And he has a powerful, personal vision.

Joel: I hesitate to describe Tero’s work in my own dance-challenged language; let’s just say that it’s visionary and radically gripping. At every performance, I watch this show from a seat in the house and have observed audiences just stunned.

Tero Saarinen dancers from the 20011 "Borrowed Light" tour (Joel Cohen photo)

Is there a particular moment?

Joel: Oh, I’m totally biased. But for me it’s the last tableau, when everything is still on the nearly-empty stage, and Anne, from a high place, lighted like an angel, sings a mystical strophic song, “Holy Mother’s Protecting Chain.

What do the surviving Shakers think about this production?

Anne: They haven’t seen it, and I surmise that they won’t see it, our invitations notwithstanding. I think they sense the difference between their lives and Tero’s choreographic goals. On the other hand they have been all openness and generosity with us concerning the use of the unpublished manuscripts, for this production, and for other projects by the Camerata.

And what did they think about the Martha Clarke show,  a “Shaker musical” which ran for a week in Boston last fall?

Joel: The Shakers were not thrilled by the reports they heard of it. I noted at the performance I attended that about 90% of the score was derived from the two Camerata CDs of Shaker song, though without acknowledgement of any sort. By contrast, our work with Tero is a genuine collaboration.

What’s up next for Camerata?

Anne: We were commissioned to create five different programs in Reims, France, a year ago, to celebrate the 800th anniversary of that city’s great cathedral. I want to bring the Reims Project to the U.S., and we plan to get started in 2013. Guillaume de Machaut lives!

Joel: Since taking on the role of artistic director three-and-a-half years ago, Anne has created ten new programs from scratch, besides maintaining the extensive Camerata “book.” Then, there’s a documentary film project for the early autumn, in collaboration with the Saarinens and a Canadian producer and director. And after that, Anne leads a new season here at home.

Good luck with all of it, and thanks.

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